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Weather alerts and what actions you should take to stay safe

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We hear the terms watch and warning a lot, and sometimes there's confusion.

A tornado watch tells us that conditions are favorable for the development of tornadoes. That means you have to come up with a plan, so when something does develop, this is the time to plan out where you're going to be to keep your family safe from the upcoming potential storm.

A tornado warning tells us something is now happening. Either a tornado is forming, has been spotted, or is being detected on radar and your life is in danger. This is when you take action and take shelter because we are looking at the possibly of catastrophic damage.

It could mean the possibility of the loss of life or injury. So this is the time when you need to seek shelter and keep yourself and your family safe from imminent weather, such as a tornado.

Then, when those warnings are issued, it's important to be able to know that warning is coming.

One way is with an outdoor storm siren, but that should not be your primary source in all situations.

It's important to note that outdoor storm sirens are meant to alert those outside about life threatening weather so you shouldn't depend on them if you are already indoors.

Outdoor sirens have come a long ways since they were first used in the 1800s.

"They kind of had telegraph lines that would get blown down and they would shoot off a cannon to make a noise," said Donna Dubberke, National Weather Service La Crosse Meteorologist in Charge. "Really interesting."

It wasn't until much later their use became standard for severe weather.

"The siren systems themselves came around after the Cold War and it was sort of a community warning system based on fears and concerns out of the Cold War," said Dubberke. "But then in the 70s was when they started using them for tornadoes and tornado warnings."

And now...

"So the most important thing to understand about sirens is that it's an outdoor warning system and they were never intended to necessarily capable of alerting people who are indoors with the windows closed and the air conditioner on," Dubberke said. "They are designed to alert people who are outside that something dangerous is happening and you should go inside and find out what that is."

So when it comes to actually sounding the siren, county emergency management teams work closely with the National Weather Service and trained storm spotters. Most counties have similar criteria for making the call.

"If it's a tornado, it's obvious. We do sound the sirens," said Sgt. Chris Wallace, Olmsted County Emergency Management Deputy Director. "But otherwise our threshold is if we get into that 70 mph [or higher] wind speeds then we'll look to sound the sirens to notify those people in those areas."

But, how the warning sirens are actually used can vary greatly.

"So we have the ability here in Olmsted County that we have our sirens divided into quadrants," Wallace said. "From here we do sound the sirens in all our local communities in the area: Byron, Oronoco, Chatfield, Stewartville, Dover, Eyota, [Pine Island], and the city of Rochester."

Those quadrants allow Olmsted County officials to sound sirens only in the effected areas.

Freeborn County will sound the sirens county-wide if there is a qualifying warning anywhere in the county.

And in Cerro Gordo County, Iowa, each community makes it's own call.

"Each community is actually responsible of their own siren system, whether they have an outdoor warning system or not," said Steve O'Neil, Cerro Gordo County Emergency Coordinator.

Cerro Gordo County is working to improve it's warning system, hoping in the next few years to use quadrants like Olmsted County.

"To be more efficient, to be able to respond faster, and to not do the old shotgun where you set off all the sirens throughout the county as soon as there's a warning," O'Neil said.

The goal isn't to scare anyone, it's to make sure the public gets proper, timely warning.

"We don't want to get into a situation where we kinda lose our credibility with sounding the sirens," Wallace said. "We do take it seriously when we do sound them."

When it comes to severe storms when you're asleep, do not rely on sirens.

The best advice is to get a NOAA weather radio. It's designed to wake you up when a warning is triggered.

So, when this happens, where should you go?

Once a tornado watch has been issued, you need to find a place where you and your family can be safe from that developing tornado, should one develop.

What you want to do is find a place in the interior most part of your house, away from doors and windows, like the center of the home.

Better yet, the safest place to be is the lowest level of your home, like a basement because that's going to give you the optimal protection from a tornado, the debris and from all sorts of broken glass, among other things.

Make sure to avoid doors, windows and outside walls. Cover yourself with blankets or a mattress for protection.

Sarah Gannon

Sarah Gannon

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