MILWAUKEE — Did you hear tornado sirens Thursday afternoon? A statewide drill took place for the first time in two years to mark the importance of severe weather awareness week.
Milwaukee County has nearly 60 tornado sirens spread throughout the county. Anytime the National Weather Service (NWS) issues a tornado warning, all of the county’s sirens are activated at the same time. Emergency management data shows sirens malfunction more often than they are set off for severe weather.
Weather sirens are meant to alert people who are outdoors to seek shelter.
“Everything starts with us, the warnings, it’s our meteorologists that are making that call for whether or not to issue tornado warnings,” said Tim Halbach.
Halbach is the local warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service. He says NWS issues warnings to individual counties and that triggers the process for counties, cities and towns to sound the sirens.
"Most of the tornadoes that we get here in Wisconsin are on the weaker end, EF-0's, EF-1’s,” he said. “Thankfully, those don't do a lot of damage or cause a lot of injuries or fatalities, but there are times when we can have a larger tornado."
In the past five years, Milwaukee County’s sirens have been activated just one time for a tornado warning in 2021. Emergency manager Paul Riegel says individual sirens have malfunctioned ten times since 2018, meaning they erroneously sounded.
"In 2018, we actually upgraded our sirens to be encrypted,” he said. “As part of that upgrade, there were some equipment malfunctions that happened.”
About half of Milwaukee County’s sirens are owned by the county itself and the rest belong to municipalities, but they are all triggered at once from the county’s emergency management dispatch center in downtown Milwaukee.
Just north in Ozaukee County, tornado sirens are all owned and operated at the municipal level.
"I think it's just a historical holdover,” said Scott Ziegler. “Wisconsin's a ‘home-rule’ state and the municipalities way back when they were put in, most of them were put in as air attack sirens back during World War II.”
Ozaukee County Emergency Manager Scott Ziegler says they also only activate sirens for tornado warnings, but he’s part of Wisconsin’s Emergency Management Association that recently issued guidance for counties to consider setting off sirens for 80 mile per hour straight line winds as well.
“That’s because the damage profile is the same,” Ziegler said.
While some counties have switched over, Ziegler says Ozaukee County and several others are holding off because it’s often difficult to identify straight line winds in the National Weather Service’s warnings.
"It's near the bottom, it's not highlighted so it could get missed,” he said. "It is a labor intensive type."
Given that most people have smart phones to get weather alerts in real-time, Ziegler thinks there could be a time when counties decide to remove tornado warnings. He believes they should remain in place, especially in areas where large amounts of people gather.