ALPENA -Technology has allowed meteorologists to become more accurate at determining the probability, strength and path of thunderstorms. Even in the age of mobile connectivity, a simple tool is being used in Alpena County to alert residents of threatening weather.
Throughout the county, sirens sound when certain forecast criteria are met and warnings are issued. Alpena County Emergency Services Coordinator Mike Szor said there is a policy in place that determines when the sirens are used, and when they go off, people should take measures to find out what the emergency is.
"The biggest percentage of our siren use is for severe weather, and it is intended to alert people that there is an imminent threat," Szor said. "When they hear it, they should tune on to one of the local broadcasting stations, which are WATZ (99.3 FM) and The Bay (107.7 FM), because they will be up and running and put out information and instructions. If they go off, there is something imminent."
Szor said storm warnings must meet certain parameters for the sirens to sound. He said a thunderstorm warning with projected winds of 58 mph or more and hail a quarter-inch or larger meet the criteria. He said tornadoes, floods and other non-weather related emergencies such as a chemical spill will also trigger the alarm.
Szor said because the warning system is a county-wide system, there are times where the alarms go off and it will appear there is nothing out of the ordinary in the area where a person lives. He said that may not be the case in a separate part of the county.
"The sirens sound off throughout the entire county. There could be a severe storm in the Hubbard Lake area, and the city may not see any of it but still hear the warning," Szor said. "The public has to have some ownership in this. They should survey the conditions and the sky around them, and if it is threatening, take cover. The siren can't give you all the information, but it can alert you to find out more."
The dispatchers at 911 Central Dispatch have some wiggle room and are able to sound the warnings on their own merit if they believe the situation calls for it. Szor said this was the case several years ago when a severe storm moved into Alpena while a large event was taking place and many people were outside.
"I always tell the dispatchers to err on the side of caution," Szor said. "There was a strong storm during the Brown Trout Festival and there were winds of 55 miles an hour, and they set them off. When there are large groups of people together, it is better to sound off the sirens than to ignore it and have injuries occur. Then people would ask why they didn't go off. So we would rather not take a chance."
Long before the emergency alert system is activated, local authorities use the data and expertise of the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to get the most accurate information about the event as possible. Szor said the weather in Northeast Michigan has changed over the years, and the likelihood of stronger storms and even tornadoes is higher than before. He said people need to make note of this and be prepared.
"The weather patterns are changing and the number of severe storms are increasing from past," Szor said. "All I want are for the people to be safe, and the sirens are tools. We have lost lives without them and we have saved lives with. I ask you please heed the warnings and find out what is transpiring, and if a threat is imminent, take cover."
Steve Schulwitz can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5689.