Sounding the alarm; meet the person behind Dane County’s outdoor warning sirens

In Wisconsin there’s no state mandated rule that dictates when and how outdoor warning sirens are tested, maintained or set off.
Published: Apr. 7, 2022 at 9:28 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 7, 2022 at 10:25 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - When a storm is approaching and it’s time to get inside, if you’re not indoors, you’ll likely hear the unmistakable sound of an outdoor warning siren. They’re also set off once a month when they’re tested in Dane County during severe weather season. But it’s not just testing if the sirens go off. A lot more goes into the process.

In Wisconsin there’s no state mandated rule that dictates when and how outdoor warning sirens are tested, maintained or set off. It’s up to each county and city to determine what works best for them. While the methods may be different, the goal is the same; keep the systems working to make sure people are safe when a storm hits.

As the clock strikes noon on Wednesday, Dane County Emergency Management’s Response Equipment Specialist Rick Lange starts to facilitate an important conversation on safety.

With three clicks on his computer, Rick sends out the signal to test the county’s 141 outdoor warning sirens.

“Generally speaking it’s about, did the siren make noise and did it rotate so everyone heard it make noise?” explains Rick.

And then it’s the radio’s turn to speak with the sirens.

“And then each siren talks back saying, did I work? How did I work? If I didn’t work what happened?” says Rick.

Those important talking points get sent right back to Rick.

“What we find is out of 141 sirens, it’s not uncommon to have an error here or there.”

And that was the case for the monthly test in April. The siren labeled 7 came back with a rotation error. Rick meticulously notes the error on his paper, and he will send a worker out the next day to check on the siren and fix anything that needs fixing. The day after testing, it’s common to hear sirens go off for short 15 second blasts. That means crews are working on them from the test results the day previous. And that’s why they test.

This safety conversation facilitator hopes the dialog travels outside the walls of the emergency management headquarters, too, to remind others these storm detectors are called outdoor warning sirens for good reason.

“They’re designed to be heard outside. You’re probably not going to hear it inside a building. We are in our office right now across the street from the biggest siren in our system. We cannot hear the outdoor warning siren when we are inside this building,” says Rick. “Then inside you need to have multiple ways to get warnings: weather radio, cell phone, local media.

One hundred and forty-one test results all roll in after about 20 minutes time. That concludes the safety conversation, for this month, at least.

“It’s all worth it because we want to make sure we have a sustainable system. And we do. We have a really good system.”

The National Weather Service just added severe thunderstorms with winds up to 70 miles per hour to alert your phone. Rick hopes soon, the sirens will go off for those types of storms as well.

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