Many schools are in tornado siren 'dead zones'

Published: .
Updated: .

Reporter: Bob Segall
Producer: Gerry Lanosga 

There are hundreds of tornado sirens throughout central Indiana, and most of them are close to busy neighborhoods. But every day, as families venture outside those neighborhoods, many are heading into dead zones - places where there are no sirens.

Union Elementary School on the north side of Zionsville is in a dead zone; it's four miles from the closest tornado sirens.

"You can't hear them at all here," said Principal Cathy Fuelling. "We're out away from things. We're a rural school."

One-hundred fifty kids go to the school every day - but what if a tornado were to come, too?

"We'll have the TV on, watching the news to see where that weather is," Fuelling said. "(But)we'd be in trouble if we lost electricity."

Union Elementary isn't alone. Eyewitness News mapped the location of every school and every tornado siren in the metro area and found there are dozens of schools nowhere near a tornado siren. Many of those schools rely on weather radios to find out about severe weather, but schools like Union don't have that, either.

It's not just schools that are out of range of sirens. Our investigation found outdoor warning sirens fail to protect some of the busiest outdoor meeting places throughout the metro area. Dozens of parks and recreation areas also fall in dead zones - places like an outdoor soccer complex in Center Grove, a popular playground in Geist, and even the Boone County Fairgrounds, where thousands of people gather every summer. None of them are within range of a warning siren.

Emergency management officials stress over and over that these sirens are meant to alert people who are outside. So these outdoor parks are exactly the types of places that should be covered by sirens. But they are not, and for the state, that is cause for alarm.

"It's definitely a current concern," said Phil Roberts, the state's emergency response director.

Roberts said it's up to counties and towns to fix their own dead zones.

"Where do the priorities fall within that jurisdiction?" he said. "Certainly I think warning, trying to save lives should be a high priority, but that's me speaking personally. That might not end up being the priorities established by the counties or local jurisdictions out there."

Our analysis found about 147 schools, parks and recreation facilities more than a mile and a half away from the nearest tornado siren; another 60 lie between a mile and a mile and a half away.

Although the range of sirens varies depending on the manufacturer, experts say a good rule of thumb, considering weather conditions and other factors, is that sirens have a practical range of about a mile. (Click here to view a map of siren ranges in the nine-county area. This is a large file. For a detailed list of schools and parks in relation to sirens, click here.)

Madison County has hundreds of square miles not covered by tornado sirens - as many as three out of four people aren't reached by sirens, officials acknowledge.

"I would say a hundred thousand are probably not covered by a siren," said emergency management director C.R. Brown.

Brown said officials in Madison County and some of its communities are in discussions about adding new sirens, but he added that with all the priorities the county has for public safety, it has to strike a balance.

"When the county that we are in is having some financial difficulties and looking at ways to make sure that we can pave the roads and put police officers and fire personnel on the streets," he said, "you've got to look at the list. You've got to look at the priorities and where you're going to spend those tax dollars that's going to benefit everybody."

Brown said residents also have to take safety into their own hands. He and county officials all over the state promote the use of weather radios that broadcast warnings directly from the National Weather Service.

The bottom line message: Sirens can be helpful, but you should not rely on them.

"People need to realize that they have a responsibility," he said. "It's not my responsibility to warn them. It's their responsibility to be prepared, and I think we're missing that."

Siren ranges for the nine-county area
Schools and parks - locations in relation to sirens

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