Sirens often synonymous with tornados caused some confusion in Waukesha County Wednesday night. Vicki Romans heard them going off from inside her Pewaukee home.
“We heard the sirens a few times around 8:30 or 8:40, and we thought, ‘Is this a tornado or what?'" Romans said.
Gary Bell, Waukesha County’s Director of Emergency Preparedness, said while the sirens are often dubbed “tornado sirens,” by local residents, that’s not all they’re used for
“Some people, I think, have a confused concept of what those sirens mean,” Bell said.
There’s no statewide guideline on when the sirens should be sounded.
In Waukesha County, Bell said they can be activated during severe thunderstorm warnings that bring large hail or winds of 58 mph or above.
Bell said the sirens are also sounded when weather is deemed to be a threat to the health, safety or property of residents.
Bell said the purpose of the sirens is to urge everyone, especially those who may be outside, to take shelter and be aware that severe weather is arriving.
The Waukesha County Communications Center made the decision to sound the sirens at 8:35 p.m. Wednesday due to reports from the national weather service of large hail and winds in excess of 60 mph.
“(Tornadoes) are the primary use of outdoor warning sirens,” Bell said. “But I keep calling them outdoor warning sirens because they’re not tornadic specific. We’re trying to notify people outside to seek shelter when bad weather is approaching.”
Waukesha County operates the sirens for some, but not all, of the county’s municipalities.
For example, the City of Waukesha operates its own emergency sirens.
In Washington County, all but one siren is run by the area’s various municipalities. The county’s emergency management department said its only siren, located at the fairgrounds, is activated during tornado warnings and/or credible funnel cloud sightings.
In Ozaukee County, the sirens are only used for tornado warnings, but the Director of Emergency Management said officials are working to amend the policy to also sound the sirens in response to extremely strong, straight-line winds.
In Milwaukee County, the Director of Emergency Management said the sirens are sounded during tornado warnings, as well as during very strong straight-line winds. The latter use of the sirens is determined on a case by case basis.