What you need to know about those tornado sirens

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Emergency management directors in central Indiana hope a weekend of wild weather will remind Hoosiers to stay alert and ready to react to dangerous storms.

Saturday afternoon brought confusion across the Indianapolis area when outdoor tornado sirens went off, despite no Tornado Warning in the area. Marion County Emergency Management officials say the sirens were sounded when an IMPD officer reported seeing what he thought was a funnel cloud. There was no funnel cloud, but sirens went off across the county.

“It was a little scary because we thought it was really a tornado,” said Indianapolis resident Dominique Edwards. “Mom was running around like Nick, get shelter!”

Many Indiana counties follow similar emergency plans in the event of severe weather, with some subtle differences. Typically, tornado sirens are sounded in the event of a Tornado Warning. They can sometimes be sounded if there is a Tornado Watch, combined with a Severe Thunderstorm Warning.

Many surrounding counties have safety plans that allow for police officers, firefighters and EMS workers to act as weather spotters.

“The sirens are also activated when a public safety official believes that they have witnessed either a funnel cloud or rotating clouds indicating a tornado is likely,” said Marion County EMA Director Dennis Peters, in an email. “They contact our Marion County’s dispatch system and advise them of what they saw. The sirens are then activated.”

The Marion County EMA website does not indicate whether the public safety officers are trained in weather spotting.

Hendricks County EMA Director Dave Warren says most of their officers do receive weather spotter training.

“If they believe it is a funnel cloud or a tornado, they will contact the Hendricks County communications center, who will also be in contact with the National Weather Service,” Warren said.

A Sunday Tornado Warning in the southwestern part of Hendricks County prompted the sirens to be activated countywide.

“For Hendricks County, when a tornado is spotted, no matter where at in the county, all alarms go off at the same time,” Warren said.

Hamilton County’s EMA website indicates the agency uses a targeted polygon system so sirens are only sounded in specific parts of the county that are under a Tornado Warning.

Peters said Marion County used to utilize such a polygon system, but it has since been abandoned for Tornado Warnings.

“We stopped using that portion of the system because residents were confused,” Peters said. “Some would hear the sirens, but not hear them in another section of the county, or they could hear them but they did not know how far the actual warning areas encompassed.”

“This led to confusion about whether or not they were at risk and whether they should seek shelter,” Peters continued. “For the safety of all of Marion County, the sirens are activated for the entire county whenever it is warranted.”

In general, safety officials remind Hoosiers that the tornado sirens are only meant for people who are outside. Weather radios, weather alerts to smart phones and live forecasts through local media are the best ways to stay safe inside during dangerous weather.

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