Weld County tornado siren test brings lack of sirens in Windsor, Greeley into focus
May 5, 2017
Nine years ago, a tornado close to a mile wide hit Weld County, tearing through hundreds of Windsor homes and killing a person in Greeley.
The twister was a rare event, yet it prompted soul-searching around the county.
One of the biggest questions centered on how to best warn residents of disasters — natural or otherwise.
Most communities in Weld have tornado sirens, with some having added them in the past decade. Seventeen of those communities will test their sirens in a coordinated test at 10 a.m. today.
However, Windsor and Greeley, the two largest communities in Weld and two cities hit hard by the 2008 tornado, don't have sirens.
For officials there, it comes down to what's effective. And as time goes on, more research and more experience show tornado sirens, for a variety of reasons, might not be the gold standard for weather warnings they are often hailed to be.
What's the state of tornado sirens in Weld County?
In — Ault, Evans, Fort Lupton, Gilcrest, Grover, Hudson, Johnstown, Keenesburg, Kersey, Lochbuie, Milliken, LaSalle, New Raymer, Nunn, Pierce, Platteville and Severance.
Out — Everybody else, including Greeley and Windsor.
So why don't Greeley and Windsor have tornado sirens? We could start with the fact officials in both communities don't think they're very effective.
Windsor briefly toyed with the idea of converting a siren at 5th and Main, which was once used to summon volunteer firefighters, into a tornado siren after the 2008 tornado tore through town.
But Windsor Police Chief Rick Klimek said that plan never got off the ground.
Greeley did similar soul-searching after the tornado, which claimed its only victim within Greeley's city limits.
The result, per Greeley Fire Department Chief Dale Lyman, was that a mass alert strategy was better for Greeley, meaning reverse 911 systems, social media and television alerts.
Are tornado sirens effective?
Longmont and Firestone would say no, as both have ditched or are planning to ditch their outdoor sirens.
Throw Greeley officials into that same bucket, as staff back in 2009 said tornado sirens work only for people outside. Heavy rain and hail may mute sirens, as it did with the deadly Joplin, Mo., tornado in 2011. Further, staff said hearing-impaired residents would not be notified.
Finally, staff said people who do hear the sirens while inside might run outside to investigate.
Let's end with this: Most tornado sirens weren't originally designed as tornado sirens. Instead, they were designed to warn of nuclear attack during the Cold War.
When Greeley looked at a city-wide system, they estimated it would cost $800,000. And yearly maintenance costs would have to factor in, as well.
For a city looking to spend $550 million on capital projects over the next two decades, $800,000 seems a paltry sum. But for Greeley officials, it was always more about whether those sirens are effective.
How effective is reverse 911?
In theory, reverse 911 should be far more effective than tornado sirens. It can be used for a variety of emergency notifications and can provide more detailed information and instructions.
Just as people aren't guaranteed to hear tornado sirens, people aren't guaranteed to hear or pay attention to their phones or televisions.
And when it comes to reverse 911, only people signed up for the service will receive emergency notifications.
For Greeley, a city of more than 100,000 people, that means fewer than 18,000 people are signed up for notifications. Windsor has more than 20,000 people, and yet fewer than 4,000 are signed up for alerts there.
Officials recommend people use a variety of services to stay up-to-date on weather and other emergencies. That could be signing up for reverse 911, following your city or county's Facebook page, purchasing a weather radio, watching your favorite weather channel on TV or on your smartphone app or listening to the radio.
Tyler Silvy covers city and county government for The Greeley Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Connect with him at Facebook.com/TylerSilvy or @TylerSilvy on Twitter.