WSFA 12 News Investigates: Are tornado sirens really effective anymore?

Posted by Bryan Henry  -  bio | email

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - We have heard that haunting sound before, a wail Teresa Clark and her young son heard two years ago in Prattville. "On a cloudy day I get nervous," said Clark.

Nervous because Clark and son Trent were sitting at the Sonic Drive-In when they heard the sirens go off. They decided to take their lunch and go home.

It's a good thing they did.

"If we had waited 20 more minutes, who knows?" Clark wondered.

"At that age I didn't know what a tornado was," said 7 year old Trent Jolie.

Trent does now.

The storm swept through Prattville causing major damage throughout the city and to Teresa's home. Incredibly, no one died. In their new home, the family heads straight to the basement the moment they hear the sirens, and there waiting for them is a drawer full of supplies including NOAA radios and food just in case the power is out for a long time.

There is a general consensus Autauga County's sirens helped saved lives that day along with meteorologists on television and the radios.

"You had a lot of variables that day. People were inside their homes, the weather came on TV and people were just getting out of church," said Autauga County EMA Director Rocky Milliman.

It's not clear if all of Alabama's 67 counties have tornado sirens.

The Alabama EMA office in Chilton County says it 'doesn't keep those records' The National Weather Service in Birmingham says 'it isn't sure,' and neither does the Association of County Commissions of Alabama in Montgomery. Because of this story, the ACCA says it will consider posing that question to county ema directors across the state.

We do know Autauga County has 27 sirens in the county, 13 in Prattville.

"This area (southeast Autauga County) is the most populated area," Milliman said as he pointed to his map of the county.

The sirens in Autauga County are tested once a month but sometimes there is a failure such as the one on Highway 82 and 14.

WSFA 12 News waited and waited, 6 minutes past the appointed hour, nothing but silence. A potentially bad situation if this had been the real deal.

"That concerns me. If it doesn't work on a sunny day, how can we be sure it will work on a bad day," said Bob Parris, a Prattville resident who lives within a quarter-of-a-mile from the siren.

"I just got a call already from someone regarding the siren not working. This is only the second time in a year and a half that it's failed," said Milliman.

To be fair Autauga County is not alone.

Records show Dallas County has siren failures every two months or so. Typically an electrical problem EMA directors say the problems are fixed right away, and 'Siren Trouble Reports' are filled out indicating when the siren failed and when it was repaired.

It's the same kind of set-up in Montgomery County; 55 sirens in the city limits, 25 in the county, designed that way for a purpose.

"They are designed to be outdoor sirens. They aren't meant to penetrate walls of your home," said Montgomery County Asst. EMA Director Mike Stoudenmire.

For example, we interviewed Stoudenmire under a siren in a baseball field complex in central Montgomery. Stoudenmire says only one siren has failed in two years.

Much like Autauga County Montgomery County tests its sirens once a month as well. EMA directors believe the mechanism of alerting people of a possible tornado is still just as effective today as the times when they were used during bombing raids in World War Two.

While Stoudenmire and Milliman say they feel comfortable with the amount of sirens they have in their counties, Eric Jones of Elmore County is not.

"We have a grant application to add another siren in the county," Jones said.

Specifically in Prattville that's part of Elmore County. Jones says the new warning system will be placed near a church very close to Prattville Christian Academy that has a student population of more than 600.

No one is more pleased than Kim Trost of Elmore County.

"They can move on you so quickly. It's meant to be listened to, not discounted," said Trost.

We take you back to the Prattville siren that didn't work. Rocky Milliman says they ended up having to replace an electrical board at the site, replaced and tested that same day, according to Milliman.

In the meantime, Teresa Clark and son Trent have moved on. Clark admits she used to take a cavalier attitude towards tornado sirens.

"That was foolish," she said.

Not anymore.

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