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The Columbus Board of Works made a wise decision when it voted to change immediately the policy regulating when emergency warning sirens sound in Bartholomew County.
The reason was simple: Many residents were confused about what the various warnings meant, and some disregarded them, putting their safety at risk.
Under the new policy approved Tuesday, warning sirens will sound only when a tornado warning has been issued. The National Weather Service issues a tornado warning when a tornado has been spotted in the area or has been indicated by weather radar. County emergency dispatchers also will sound the alarm if a trained weather spotter, police officer or firefighter spots a funnel cloud.
Under the old policy, warning sirens were activated for tornado warnings and for tornado watches issued during severe thunderstorm warnings. A tornado watch indicates that conditions are favorable for a tornado to develop, not that one has been spotted. A severe thunderstorm warning is issued when a storm is capable of producing damaging surface winds in excess of 58 mph or hail three-quarters of an inch in diameter.
Although the former policy was well-intended, residents couldn’t distinguish what the sirens meant.
The old policy was akin to the boy who cried wolf. When the sirens sounded, many people ignored them because they’d heard them too many times before, usually with no serious damage resulting.
The fact that residents would ignore the sirens at times when they should have been seeking shelter, such as when a tornado actually was spotted in the area, was a big concern for emergency operations officials, who proposed the changes to the board.
In fact, that’s a recipe for disaster, especially during the tornado season, which lasts from April through June.
Columbus owns 14 emergency sirens. Hope has one, and Jonesville is considering buying one.
Last year, the warning sirens were activated six times by tornado warnings and six times by tornado watches during thunderstorm warnings. This year, the sirens have sounded once for a tornado warning and six times for tornado watches.
Tornadoes do have a history of touching down in Bartholomew County. The last time was Nov. 15, 2005, near a farm on Road 800N, about two miles from Hope.
Thanks to the change in policy, the next time you hear an emergency warning siren you will know that a tornado has been spotted in the area. And that means you need to take shelter immediately — away from windows and in a basement, a small central room like a bathroom or a closet or a low-lying area.
There’s no confusion about that.
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