Emergency sirens not just for tornadoes
Contrary to popular belief, the dozen sirens spread around Woodford County don't just go off for tornadoes and the bi-weekly tests at 11 a.m. on the first and third Wednesdays of the month. "They are in place for tornadoes, but several of them being older than I am, are leftover; they're relics from Civil Defense, when everybody was worried about nuclear fallout and sheltering in place ..." said Woodford Emergency Management (EM) Director Drew Chandler. Chandler said the sirens are activated when conditions are immediately dangerous to life and health. They were activated twice on Monday, March 27, the first time about 6:30 p.m. Chandler said a tornado warning had been issued for Mercer County and EM Deputy Ed Murner contacted him to say winds had picked up in the southern portion of Woodford County. Chandler called the Versailles Dispatch Center, which is located in the Versailles Police Department, and the dispatchers activated the sirens. They went off again a little after 7 that evening after the Anderson County 9-1-1 dispatch center contacted its counterpart in Versailles to tell local dispatchers of a "credible threat" headed towards Woodford County. In neither situation was a tornado confirmed, but Chandler and Versailles Police Chief James Fugate said "Better safe than sorry" is the policy. "If there's a tornado warning or an imminent threat or a verified credible threat, we'll sound them out of an abundance of caution. If for nothing else, the amazing lightning that happened Monday was worth (letting people know), 'It's getting ready to storm. I need to go indoors,' Chandler said. Chandler said along with public safety officials like EM employees, police and firefighters, Versailles dispatchers give extra weight to calls from weather spotters, ham radio operators and others who've received severe weather training. "You want to make sure that it's credible, and if there are any questions, we can attempt to confirm it ourselves, because we're out on the road at any given time. We have the ability to get somewhere and try to get a visual, if there's a question," Fugate said. The flip side of the "better safe than sorry" approach is the story of the boy who cried wolf. Chandler and others note that if people hear the sirens go off again and again during non-test periods without seeing storm damage, there's a danger they won't take them seriously. "That's why we don't sound them every time there's just a severe thunderstorm warning. When I say that, that sounds like a severe thunderstorm warning isn't dangerous. It is dangerous. But if we activate them for every severe thunderstorm warning, that's a few dozen a year versus a tornado warning, which is a couple of times a year at best," Chandler said. On the other hand, Chandler said he'd ask dispatchers to activate the sirens "without hesitation" if there was a severe thunderstorm during a well-attended event at, for instance, the Woodford County Park. "There's a siren in close proximity, you have a large population that's outdoors that's very vulnerable. No, it's not a tornado warning, but they can still kill people," Chandler said. "We always err on the side of caution, and hopefully, nobody faults us for that." If there's a power outage and back-up generators fail at the dispatch center, Chandler and other key officials can activate the sirens by radio. The Woodford County sirens are mechanically powered, and all of them go off at once. Over the years, leaders have considered targeted systems and sirens that can include voice announcements, like Fayette County has, but those are more expensive and require more maintenance, Chandler said. Ironically, the every-other Wednesday siren tests are suspended when cloudy or stormy weather might convince people that the warnings are real. While this time of year is often called "severe weather season," Chandler noted, "We've had tornadoes in February before. ... Peak activity is kind of in the March to June time frame, but we had one in October. You can't say that they won't happen anytime." Regardless of the threat, be it tornado or severe thunderstorm, Chandler has this advice: When you hear the sirens, seek shelter immediately. "If it were activated for any reason, it's because the public safety leaders in the community have determined there's a credible threat to people's health and safety," Chandler said.