NewsOK: Oklahoma City News, Sports, Weather & Entertainment

Oklahoma City residents sound off over change in tornado siren policy

On Tuesday evening, as a round of heavy storms bore down on Oklahoma City, Jim Roth sat at home trying to get some work done.

Knowing severe weather was on the way, Roth, 47, kept an ear out for tornado sirens, figuring that he'd turn on his television if he heard one.

But when his power began to flicker, Roth, an Oklahoma City attorney and former Oklahoma Corporation Commission member, turned on the local news, just in time to see television crews report a possible tornado near Lake Aluma, less than a mile from his house. Even after that warning, though, Roth said he never heard a siren.

“I was just surprised that there was no audible siren in the area,” Roth said. “If anyone is reporting tornadoes on the ground, I would think that the public has a right to know.”

Roth wasn't alone. After the storms passed, dozens of Oklahoma City residents took to social media to ask city officials why they hadn't heard an outdoor warning siren before a tornado touched down nearby. Many blamed the new tornado siren policy the city implemented last year.

Under Oklahoma City's new tornado policy, sirens are no longer activated countywide during severe weather, but instead will be sounded only in areas covered by the warning. Under the old policy, the city would activate all its sirens in any county affected by a warning.

For example, if a tornado threat existed in southern Cleveland County, miles away from Oklahoma City, residents in south Oklahoma City would still hear a siren.

From the city's perspective, the new policy worked as it was meant to, said Oklahoma City emergency manager Frank Barnes.

But he acknowledged many residents still seem to be confused about the new policy.

Tuesday evening marked the first time city officials activated its storm sirens under the new policy. The city activated sirens twice in far northeast Oklahoma City: once at 8:46 p.m., after the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for that area, and a second time at 8:50 p.m., when an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper spotted a tornado near the Turner Turnpike.

Forecasters from the National Weather Service's Norman office would later confirm an EF1 tornado touched down Tuesday evening near Luther, and an EF0 tornado spun up near Mustang. Outside the Oklahoma City area, forecasters also confirmed an EF0 tornado near Byng, a community about 7 miles north of Ada. No deaths were reported, but 12 people were injured in the storms, according to the state Health Department.

The new policy allows city officials to give more narrowly targeted warnings when severe weather strikes, Barnes said. But it doesn't change the criteria city officials consider when they decide whether to activate the sirens.

Barnes said some residents also expect the sirens to be their first warning that a tornado is imminent, even when they're indoors. Sirens were designed to be heard outdoors, Barnes said. They can't always be heard inside of well-built structures.

During storm season, residents should have more than one way of getting weather information, Barnes said. Weather radios and television weather reports offer more detailed information that residents can use to assess the threat, rather than waiting for a siren they might not be able to hear.

“Residents need to take individual responsibility for taking action to protect themselves when there's severe weather,” Barnes said. “People are relying on government to tell them what to do. They should rely on themselves to make those decisions.”

Rick Smith, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service's Norman office, said some people in tornado-prone areas tend to view outdoor sirens as “magical.” When severe weather is on the way, residents should stay aware of conditions as they change rather than waiting for a siren.

That's especially true on days like Tuesday, when forecasts were uncertain and conditions changed by the minute, Smith said. In those cases, residents should take shelter if they feel threatened, whether they hear a siren or not.

“As good as all the meteorologists are in this area, none of us are perfect, and none can tell exactly what's happening or exactly what's going to happen,” Smith said. “It's always the safer, better option to just go ahead and take shelter.”

Related Photos
<figure><img src="//" alt="Photo - " title=""><figcaption></figcaption></figure>
Silas Allen

Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri. Read more ›