You hear the warning sirens, look outside, and see partly cloudy skies. You might be wondering if meteorology is just a guessing game. Many people may become complacent and think that nothing ever happens when a tornado warning is issued; therefore, they fail to take heed to the next warning. So what does it mean when there is a tornado warning, and are they really frequently wrong?
According to the National Weather Service, a tornado warning is issued when a tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar, causing imminent danger to life and property. So why does it seem like there are many errant warnings? Historically, the National Weather Service issued warnings by county. Tornadoes, often formed from a super cell, may not necessarily be large in size. As a result, the northern part of a county may experience dark skies, heavy rains, and severe weather; whereas the southern part of the same county may experience partly cloudy skies. However, the old system would alert the entire county. This changed in October 2007, when the National Weather Service began issuing polygon based warnings. Polygon based warnings provide a much narrower focus with the intention of alerting only the areas immediately affected by the storm. So if this was changed in 2007, why does it still seem like there are false alarms? While many new technologies, such as cellphones, may utilize the polygon based warnings; others do not. NOAA weather radio, for instance, still uses county based warnings. In addition, outdoor storm sirens may be set off by the local emergency dispatch center. The dispatch center may have only one button that controls all sirens in its jurisdiction, and not have the ability to control individual sirens. As a result, you may hear the sirens outdoors and hear the alert tone on the weather radio, but still see fair weather in your area.
What should you do when the alert tone or siren goes off? If you have a weather radio, listen to it. The affected areas and towns will be listed. You can also go to your local weather.gov website for further information. Even if you notice you are outside the warned polygon area, you should still remain vigilant as more storms may be on the way. Pay attention and always be prepared. You should have an emergency plan for your family in place, along with an emergency kit. Our Tornado Emergency Kit is a great place to get started. Remember, the warning alert system is in place to help protect lives. However, it is up to you to determine whether you may be directly affected and to take appropriate action.