Wednesday, April 1, 2015


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I’ve been involved in public safety almost all my life---with the Civil Defense (Boy, that dates me!), Homeland Security, fire service, police, etc.---but there are still two areas where I remain forever mentally challenged.  To me, warnings that involve public safety, and that require that the public respond immediately in a specific way for their own good, should be clear, concise, and 100% free of possible misunderstanding or misinterpretation. 


Here’s the first problem.  About 2:15 this afternoon, a siren sounded.  As I was washing the truck, I stopped and looked around, and there was not a cloud in the sky anywhere.  However, I still have this problem of frequently being unable to immediately determine by the second warble if I’m listening to a fire siren or a tornado siren.  One tells me that if I don’t smell smoke, I should just listen to hear which way the fire trucks go.  The other means I should be running flat-out for my tornado shelter.   I’m sure if I heard them one after the other, their difference would be unmistakable.  However, hearing one or the other only once a week or so, it takes a finely tuned ear to tell them apart, and then only after standing there for the duration of the siren doing a mental juggling act between fire, no, tornado, no, can’t be, fire.  If it is in fact a tornado warning, by the time one decides what the siren is for, you’re being sucked through the front window.


I called the town office and asked what the siren was for.  I was told it was the storm siren.  I asked if there were two different sirens used so they could be distinguished one from the other, and was told, “No, it’s the same siren.”  “Well,” I asked, “is there a different pattern or something between the two?  They sound the same to me.”  “Yeah, one sounds like a fire siren that goes up and down, and the other sounds like a dead animal.”  “Well the one I just heard went up and down, so was that the fire siren?”  “No, that was the storm siren.  It’s the one we sound every Wednesday at noon.”  (Of course it is now 2:15.)  Apparently they were having other problems that prevented the siren being sounded on time.  None of this helped me.  Besides, it’s April first, so I wondered if she was serious or just putting me on.  I guess I have to listen to more dying animals or sit dutifully at noon each Wednesday to listen for the tornado siren.


Forecasters often talk about not being able to understand why people hearing a tornado siren immediately go rushing outside to look around when they should be heading for their shelter.   I understand it perfectly.  They don’t hear a tornado siren.  What they hear is a siren, period.  Then they rush outside to see what the heck is going on.  They are checking to see if there is a glow and smoke in the sky, or a funnel.  Then they will know what the siren was for.


The other issue I’ve never understood is storm watches and warnings.  There are 1,025,110 words in the English language.  So why did they have to pick two words confusingly close to one another to represent two totally different things?  After 50 years, when I hear one of the two words, I still have to stop and think about whether that is the less serious one or the more serious one.  Between watch or warning, either one could be either the lesser or the greater.  Does watch mean to watch for possible weather developing during the day, or does the word warning warn about possible bad weather?  Why don’t they take one of those two words---it doesn’t matter which one---and use it to indicate that bad or severe weather may be possible and that people should pay attention to weather updates during the day.  Then they could pick another word, like BOKAG for the serious alert requiring immediate action.  BOKAG, of course, being the acronym for 'bend over, kiss as- goodbye.   Now, no one would have a problem understanding that!

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