Sheriff announces changes to tornado-siren policy

Sheriff announces changes to tornado-siren policy

URBANA — Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh has tweaked the county's criteria for sounding the tornado sirens in Champaign, Urbana and Savoy, in the wake of a nasty storm two weeks ago that damaged homes in west Champaign.

Walsh said Friday that, after consulting with a local meteorologist, he added the following as a reason to sound the sirens:

"If a trained spotter sees a wall cloud with rotation — the spinning up in the air — approaching our area, we will sound," he said.

In the past, he said the criteria for activating the sirens were:

— If a tornado was seen by a trained spotter.

— If a tornado was confirmed by the National Weather Service on radar heading toward the cities.

— If the Emergency Management Agency received reports of damage that appeared to be from a tornado approaching Champaign, Urbana and Savoy.

Walsh said the additional criteria would not have changed the decision not to sound the sirens on June 10.

"We still intend to use the sirens only when a tornado threat is imminent, not when conditions are ripe. A tornado or straight-line winds can still occur and cause significant damage with no advanced warning," said Walsh, who oversees the county's EMA.

And he reminded that spotters cannot provide warnings in heavy rains and at night.

"In Champaign County, the NWS radar sees things in the 6,000- to 7,000-foot range; it may not see what is hitting the ground," he said.

Walsh stressed the need for citizens to use common sense. Pay attention to television, radio and weather apps when severe weather is threatening, he said, and take cover indoors appropriately.

"The sirens are meant to warn persons who are outside. The sirens are 1950s technology," he said.

Walsh said the smaller towns in Champaign County have their own emergency services teams that include trained spotters and public safety officials, such as a fire chief, who make their own decisions about when to sound sirens.

Mahomet Police Chief Mike Metzler said that's the case in his village.

"They test the sirens monthly and also deploy spotters when the county EMA is activated. We essentially are on our own. We get the same alerts and have spotters we deploy and have in the past, made decisions to sound sirens on our own," he said.

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