Sheriff defends decision not to sound tornado sirens

Sheriff defends decision not to sound tornado sirens

CHAMPAIGN — Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh defended the decision not to sound tornado sirens Sunday but said officials are discussing refinements to the procedure.

On Monday, the National Weather Service confirmed that two tornadoes briefly touched down just after 2:15 p.m. in southwest Champaign, damaging roofs, trees and driveway basketball hoops.

While a tornado warning was in effect at the time for much of northwest Champaign County, the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency did not activate tornado sirens in the area.

"When we sound the sirens, we want people to take immediate shelter," Walsh wrote. "If we begin using sirens anytime storm conditions are such that a tornado could develop (as opposed to when there is an actual tornado), I believe it is likely the public will soon begin to ignore the warning."

He also said that tornado sirens can cause unnecessary disruptions during a false alarm, noting that some businesses, such as hospitals, take special precautions when they hear a siren.

Carle Foundation Hospital spokeswoman Laura Mabry said the hospital tries to move patients to safe areas when there's a tornado warning, weather-radio alert or outdoor siren.

"As per Carle's Emergency Operations Plan, once there is official notification of a tornado warning from a county Emergency Management Agency, NOAA weather radio or outdoor sirens, health system staff would takes steps to move patients who can be moved to safe areas and to protect those who cannot be moved while also keeping employee safety top of mind," she said in a statement.

During Sunday's storm, Carle was never in the area covered by the initial tornado warning, which covered some of west Champaign, Thomasboro, Bondville, Mahomet and Farmer City.

A later tornado warning included the southeastern part of Champaign County, a sliver of northeastern Douglas County, southern Vermilion County and northern Edgar County.

Public-safety officials have been discussing what happened Sunday, and Walsh said the EMA will be meeting with meteorologists to discuss "refinements" to the protocol.

"I want to meet with a meteorologist and ask him, 'Is there anything else we should be looking at with the radar?' and any other suggestions he might have," Walsh said.

The EMA activates the sirens when there's a tornado observed either by a trained weather spotter or by the weather service on radar, or if there are reports of significant damage in the path headed toward the area, but not whenever there's a tornado warning.

This procedure was approved by the state.

When the Champaign County EMA activates its sirens, all the sirens in Champaign, Urbana, the University of Illinois and Savoy are sounded.

Walsh said it's unlikely this would change.

"We talked about it, but I don't know if we'll change it, because if we sound it in Champaign and it keeps moving, I think we just have to keep it as one unit because we are so tight geographically," Walsh said.

During Sunday's storm, two EMA officials were working, and two spotters were in the general area of the storm west of Champaign, Walsh said.

"Both reported that they did not see a tornado," he said.

As the storm approached, the EMA coordinator called the weather service, which told them the radar didn't indicate a tornado.

"Given this information, he did not activate the sirens as no tornado was observed by spotters or indicated on NWS radar," Walsh said. "Obviously, tornadoes developed, but this was the best information he had at the time."

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