Wisconsin towns debate silencing tornado sirens

Posted at 10:26 PM, May 30, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-31 10:21:09-04

They're meant to keep you safe during severe weather, but for years cities across Wisconsin have debated getting rid of aging sirens.

They're a part of critical public safety plans in some towns, but non-existent in others. Most people know what a tornado siren means: take cover.

But people in Antigo, Wisconsin won't hear that sound anymore. They're the only town we found in the state not using sirens anymore.

"I think they still serve a vital role, but we're looking towards the future," said Mark Desotell, the city's director of administrative services.

Antigo and the surrounding county started using a website called Everbridge. It allows residents to sign up for weather alerts that go to their phones and social media. All landline phones were automatically enrolled.

Some people were concerned eliminating sirens would leave those who don't sign up or those without cell phones in the dark. But, Antigo officials say they've offered free weather radios to people in need.

"All 20,000 residents in the county have now access to it if they so choose," Desotell said.

The cost to get new sirens to reach only city of Antigo residents would have been up to $65,000. For the online system, the city and Langlade County split a $5,000 set-up fee and an ongoing $7,399 in annual maintenance.

Tod Pritchard with Wisconsin Emergency Management tells the I-Team sirens can be critical.

"They're still a major part of the warning system for many towns, cities, counties all across the state," he said.

But, he adds they have limitations. He said you can only hear sirens within a certain area, and the wind can change where the sound reaches. He said they can be hard to hear inside or when you're sleeping. He also adds sirens let you know something bad is happening, but can't tell you what or where the danger is.

Many sirens first went up in the 1940's at the start of the Cold War. When they weren't warning of a nuclear attack anymore, cities began using them for severe weather. Many we researched hadn't been replaced in 20 to 40 years. The high cost of maintaining and repairing the aging technology can put a strain on city budgets.

"Obviously it comes down to dollars and cents," said Port Washington City Administrator Mark Grams.

Grams said Port Washington also debated eliminating sirens.

"We do put safety as being very important for those people coming into the city and yes, a lot of people obviously do carry cell phones," he said.

But, the city still decided to replace one of their four sirens to the tune of $22,000. They may replace two more sirens, eliminating one, but still reaching the entire city. Grams said Port Washington gets a lot of visitors over the summer and sending quick warnings is vital, even if new sirens will cost the city at least another $50,000.

"When we go through the budget process, we'll take a look at that," he said.

It's a choice every local community gets to make. The state has no role in regulating sirens.

"I don't think you can have enough ways to warn people," Pritchard, from the state's emergency management, said. He recommends everyone have a weather radio available.

And one warning could save a life. But, Pritchard said it's critical that people listen to those warnings and have a plan in place.


What do you need to do to keep your family safe? We asked Pritchard how people should prepare. Here are some of his tips.

  • "Listen, act and live. Listen to that warning, whatever source it's coming from, then take action immediately, don't waste time trying to confirm what you already know that there's a danger, that there's a potential tornado or other incident that I need to take action, I need to protect myself and protect my family," he said.
  • Get to the lowest, inner-most spot in your home. "Basement is still the safest place in your home. Getting underneath something is a great idea, like a sturdy table, chair anything like that because the number one reason people are injured in a tornado is because stuff falls on them," Pritchard said. He recommends having pillows, blankets or an old mattress to protect yourself. He said a bicycle helmet and sturdy shoes are great ideas.
  • "Once I hear the weather radio go off, my cell phone goes off there's that 10 seconds where I'm a deer in headlights," Pritchard explained. He said families should start talking about their safety plan in April, to be sure they won't be caught off guard when an emergency does happen.

Learn more about making an emergency plan here.