Indiana's lack of tornado siren policy leads to confusion

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The Statewide Tornado Drill Wednesday was a good reminder to know what it means when the sirens sound where you live. The problem for Hoosiers is that there is no uniform siren policy. Instead, rules on when to activate warning sirens differ depending on which county you live in. WTHR contacted officials in all nine Indianapolis Metro counties to find out what their policies are.

According to Indianapolis Homeland Security Chief Gary Coons, Indianapolis and Marion County changed their siren policy last year.

"Now our protocol is a Tornado Warning only or a sighting of a funnel cloud by an emergency responder," Coons said. Before the change, Marion County sirens would also sound with the combination of a Severe Thunderstorm Warning and a Tornado Watch, even if no Tornado Warning was issued.

Learn about the National Weather Service definitions of watches and warnings here.

Unfortunately, some Indianapolis residents haven't heard about the change and still think the old policy is in place. Courtney Graves of Indianapolis says her understanding is that in "regular rain, the sirens will go off. That's why a lot of times when you hear the sirens, you don't automatically run down to the basement and get to cover. Because it could just be a bad thunderstorm."

Chief Coons says part of the reason behind changing the old policy was to sound the sirens less often so that people would take them more seriously. He said people were becoming complacent.

"People were starting to hear the sirens so much that they weren't taking action," Coons said.

While Marion County and Indianapolis changed their policy, Johnson County just to the south continues to sound sirens during the combination of a Severe Thunderstorm Warning and a Tornado Watch, which can be confusing. If you work in Indianapolis but live in Greenwood, the sirens may mean two very different things.

Paul Smith of Indianapolis has a suggestion.

"The best thing is to have it so that it's uniform so that everyone is on the same page. So that when it goes off, it means the same thing to everyone, as opposed to...'Where am I at now?'...That's kind of confusing," he said.

Officials do not plan to adopt a uniform policy anytime soon, but some counties tell WTHR they are working to review and revise their siren policies to better conform to what other nearby counties are doing.

To help clear the confusion, use warning sirens as an alert to get indoors, since they're really only intended as a warning for people who are outside. Once safely inside, rely on a battery-operated weather radio for lifesaving warnings to keep you and your family safe.

Officials stress having a severe weather preparedness kit including a flashlight and weather radio along with knowing the safest place to take cover will save crucial time if a tornado is threatening.

County Policies:

Marion County (Indianapolis):

Department of Homeland Security will activate sirens when the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning, when an emergency responder sees a funnel cloud or tornado or when there's another report of imminent danger to the lives of residents. The sirens may also be activated for non-weather-related emergencies such as a hazardous materials emergency. Sirens are also activated for regular tests. Marion County is divided into quadrants, so sirens may be sounded in one part of the county, but not in other parts of the county, depending on where the weather is threatening. They have a total of 171 sirens.

Remember that outdoor warning sirens are for outdoor warning only. With 97% of our community covered, you may not hear the siren inside your home or business. It may not wake you up during the night so therefore we are encouraging citizens to prepare themselves for severe weather by building a kit that includes a NOAA Weather Radio, making a plan for them and their family, and staying informed through the NWS and our local media partners.

Johnson County:

Severe Weather Sirens shall be activated under any one of the following criteria:

1. A TORNADO WARNING is issued for Johnson County by the National Weather Service Indianapolis Area Forecast Office.

2. When a Public Safety Officer (Police, Fire, EMS) or a trained Weather Spotter reports sighting a Funnel Cloud or Tornado in Johnson County.

3. When Johnson County is under a TORNADO WATCH and a SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING issued for Johnson County by the National Weather Service Indianapolis Area Forecast Office.

Boone County:

Emergency Warning Sirens in Boone County will be activated under one of the following conditions:

1. A Tornado Warning has been issued for Boone County by the National Weather Service.

2. By request of someone from Boone County emergency services. (Police, Fire, EMA, EMS, etc.)

3. If a tornado is confirmed on the ground in a neighboring county moving towards Boone County even if a warning is not yet issued by NWS.

Hancock County:

The Hancock County / City of Greenfield TORNADO WARNING siren system will be activated under the following circumstances:

1. When a tornado warning is issued for Hancock County by the National Weather Service, Indianapolis Area Forecast Office.

2. When a Public Safety Officer (Law Enforcement, Fire, EMS, Emergency Management) reports a sighting of a FUNNEL CLOUD or TORNADO and the report is passed on to the Primary County Warning Point (Hancock County 911/Emergency Operations Center).

3. When directed to activate sirens by the Director, or Deputy Director of the Hancock County Emergency Management Agency.

4. Sirens are activated once per week for testing purposes, unless severe weather is eminent. Individual sirens may be sounded during daytime hours for maintenance and repair purposes. In those instances, prior notification will be attempted through media outlets.

5. Sirens may be activated by the Hancock County 911/Emergency Operations Center, or the Hancock County Emergency Management Agency.

Initial activation should be for the entire county, with a second activation for specific zones or geographic regions at the discretion of the communications operator, based upon the specifics of the storm.

Hamilton County:

The Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency does NOT own or maintain any of the outdoor warning sirens in Hamilton County. They are all owned and maintained by the City or Town in which they are located, with the exception of the one located at the entrance of the White River Campground, which is owned and maintained by the Hamilton County Parks Department.

The Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency only activates the system when needed using the following policy:

Outdoor Warning Sirens in Hamilton County are activated:

1. When the National Weather Service issues a Tornado Warning for all or parts of Hamilton County. If the warning is issued for the entire county, all sirens are activated. If the warning only covers part of the county, only the sirens of the communities within the warning polygon are activated.

2. If a funnel cloud or tornado is sighted by public safety personnel or EMA volunteer storm spotters who are trained by the NWS.

3. At the discretion of Emergency Management staff, based on storm spotter reports, such as a straight line wind event that is causing damage.

4. If a City/Town official (Police Chief, Fire Chief, Mayor, etc) requests the activation of their sirens since they are the actual owners of the sirens.

5. During the annual morning/evening statewide tornado drills in March. This is because the National Weather Service issues actual Tornado Warnings for this event.

6. Every Friday at 11 AM for testing, unless the temperature is below 32 degrees (in case moisture gets in the gears and freezes, it may break something) or if the weather is bad (so the public doesn't think a Tornado Warning has been issued).

Morgan County:

At this time there is no set policy because the sirens are all owned by different agencies. Morgan County is working on putting a policy together to make everyone the same when it comes to activation of tornado sirens.

Madison County:

Madison County is currently reviewing our siren activation plan to ensure we are consistent with other surrounding counties. As soon as we have our revised plan updated and approved we will be glad to release it.

Shelby County:

We are in process of updating the Guideline.

Hendricks County:

WTHR contacted the county for their policy, but has not yet received a response.