By Elise Franco
Weather officials remain adamant that alerting people about severe weather is crucial, regardless of where the threat lies.
Storms that rolled through the Mahoning Valley on July 3 were severe enough to trigger late-night/early-morning tornado warnings by the National Weather Service and, subsequently, the sounding of tornado sirens throughout Mahoning County.
Those warnings and sirens can indicate the spotting of a tornado or funnel cloud or weather radar picking up tornadic conditions or activity, said Gary Garnet, NWS warning coordination meteorologist.
But for many Mahoning residents, the sirens caused confusion. They sounded countywide from about 10:30 p.m. July 3 to midnight July 4 and again from 12:30 to 1:30 a.m., even though the tornado warning was issued only in the southwest portion of the county.
Clark Jones, director of the Mahoning County Emergency Management Agency, said his office fielded about a half-dozen calls from residents wondering why they heard sirens when they lived in a section of the county not under imminent threat.
“We explained to them that the sirens are on a master system. ... It’s done that way because we wouldn’t try to second guess weather,” he said. “They understood, but that doesn’t mean everybody does.”
Clark said Mahoning County’s 47 sirens are connected, so when the NWS issues a tornado warning, they’re all activated with one switch. He said Sebring Village is the only county entity that operates its own.
“The purpose is to get the public aware that something is happening, and they should tune to the local media,” he said. “Sirens are not geographically oriented when they’re set off.”
Trumbull County, which is also prone to severe weather, runs its more than 80 sirens differently, said Linda Beil, director of the Trumbull County Emergency Management Agency.
“Our 911 center has the ability to set off some, but not all, of the sirens in the county,” she said. “Some cities have the ability to set off their own.”
Beil said, however, that cities with their own sirens will sound them when the county does.
Garnet said most Ohio counties use systems similar to those in Mahoning and Trumbull, though some have the technology to choose where the siren is heard.
“It’s more common for an entire county to sound everywhere versus trying to break it out into sectors,” he said. “Some do try to sector their counties out, though.”
Garnet said both methods have pros and cons.
“In sectoring sirens, you can narrow down the warned area and the whole over-warning effect can be minimized,” he said. “But if you’re only warning a certain area, people outside that area could unknowingly drive into the threat.”
He said the benefit of hearing the siren is that it prompts more people to seek more information.
“When they do hear that siren, they seek information to determine where the threat is,” Garnet said. “There’s a balance between warning too much and not warning enough, and I think common sense prevails.
“Public-safety officials might want more caution than not enough.”
Beil said tornadoes can be so unpredictable that they can’t afford not to be cautious by alerting everyone.
“Tornadoes move so fast, and we feel it’s better to warn the whole county so they can watch TV and know what’s happening and where it’s at,” she said.
Jones said he hopes residents won’t get so used to hearing sirens that they begin to ignore them because when they sound there’s usually a reason.
“It’s better to be warned,” he said. “We’re not trying to cry wolf.”