Students, workers statewide to practice tornado drills during Severe Weather Awareness Week

Students, workers statewide to practice tornado drills during Severe Weather Awareness Week
Ryan Hickman/CNN

An average of 23 tornadoes touch down in Wisconsin every year, according to the National Weather Service. While most are either EF-0 or EF-1, the state recorded an EF-3 in May 2017.

State leaders want to make sure everyone is prepared for the worst. Gov. Scott Walker has declared this week Tornado and Severe Weather Awareness Week.

Days and weeks like this are crucial to making sure the National Weather Service is communicating with the county’s siren system so they can effectively warn people when tornadoes are in the area.

That communication system stalled four years ago when Dane County’s 911 center officially sounded sirens at least nine minutes after a tornado warning had been issued during a storm that destroyed more than a dozen homes and caused significant damage to County View Elementary School.

The June 2014 tornado was the first time Dane County had used its new siren system.

Dane County Emergency Management now says it takes much less time, usually between 30 seconds and 1:30 for the sirens to sound.

“The outdoor warning system in Dane County is fully automated,” explained Dave Janda, the assistant director of Dane County Emergency Management Services. “The activation is tied to a tornado warning being issued by the National Weather Service. It was not fully automated in 2014. That’s a more recent development.”

On Thursday, schools, businesses, and families will have two opportunities to test their emergency plans during statewide tornado drills.

A mock tornado watch will be issued at 1 p.m. Thursday afternoon, followed by a statewide mock tornado warning at 1:45 p.m. There will be another mock tornado warning at 6:45 p.m. to give families and second shift workers a chance to practice their emergency plans, too.

“I think the alerting systems in Dane County are state of the art,” said Janda. “And there are a lot of options for people. One thing people can do it take advantage of those options and have more than one method of getting emergency information.”

Janda called cell phone alerts the biggest “game changer” in emergency alert technology, but says his department is continually looking at ways to improve the system.

“That goes from ways of detecting storm threats, assessing them, maintaining communication with the National Weather Service, and disseminating them,” said Janda. “We’re looking to get warnings out as many ways as possible and getting people information as early as possible.”

Sirens are primarily used to warn people who are outside. Dane County has 136 sirens.

Weather radios, cell phone alerts, and broadcast media outlets, like News 3, help alert people when a tornado is in the area. News 3 is plugged in with the National Weather Service’s computer warning systems, so when a warning is issued, it immediately goes out over the station.