But there was a catch: It only applied if counties agreed to provide the information and accept the department’s help. Not a single county has ever opted in.
John Erickson, Homeland Security spokesman, said the state can’t force counties to follow a uniform siren protocol nor demand that they install them. Nor can the department compel counties to provide information on their existing warning systems.
“They’re totally under local control,” Erickson said. “We don’t own them and we don’t maintain them. Counties have that responsibility.”
No state has a uniform standard method for sounding those public siren systems, nor is there a nationally accepted protocol for issuing the all-clear alerts.
But federal safety experts want that to change. In November, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institutes of Standards and Technology issued a report calling for nationwide standards for weather-emergency notifications, including outdoor sirens.
“Across the country, there is no standard method for sounding outdoor public siren systems, which has led to variations in siren usage, activation procedures, and sounding patterns among U.S. communities,” the report authors found.
That finding was based on the agency’s investigation of the deadly May 22, 2011, tornado that tore through Joplin, Mo., claiming 163 lives. The high death toll was blamed in part on flaws in the warning-siren system. There were reports that some people ignored the sirens, didn’t hear them, or were confused by an all-clear siren triggered just before the tornado hit.
But developing a protocol for when a siren should be sounded may not be easy, since there’s disagreement even among experts.
Dan McCarthy, the National Weather Service chief meteorologist in Indianapolis, said the NWS doesn’t have a policy on when local officials should sound their weather sirens.
“We all have our own personal opinions about it,” McCarthy said. “But it’s up local communities to make those decisions.”