2 suburbs rethink their tornado warning systems

June 24, 2011 2:47:55 PM PDT
Two Chicago suburbs are reviewing their emergency siren policies in the wake of the tornadoes that touched down in their communities on Tuesday.

The sirens didn't go off in Mount Prospect and Downers Grove, and now town officials are considering a change.

Even if the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning, as it did on Tuesday, the decision to activate warning sirens is up to individual communities. For some, the mere potential for a twister is enough to trigger their system. But others, as was learned this week, set the bar higher.

Three days after the storm the Yoksoulian family of Downers Grove still has no power, and trees still block the street in front of their house, all thanks to a tornado that struck with little warning.

"Knew it was heavy winds and knocking some tree limbs, but we did not expect it to be a tornado," said Jerry Yoksoulian.

Neither did village officials, which is why none of Downers Grove's seven tornado sirens were sounded. The village only does so if a tornado or storm rotation is reported by the National Weather Service or someone on the ground. Neither was the case Tuesday night.

"The triggers under our criteria, our policy, were not there that night," said Downers Grove Mayor Martin Tully. "And actually, as we stand here right now, they're still not there. The only difference is that after the storm the National Weather Service declared that there had been a tornado occurrence, and that's why we're having this conversation."

But several suburbs did activate their sirens, including communities where storm damage was less severe.

The West Suburban Consolidated Dispatch Center handles siren decisions for Oak Park, River Forest, and Elmwood Park, and officials Friday said, out of an abundance of caution, sirens there are generally activated in severe weather even if no rotation is reported.

"It seems like the sirens have often gone off here whenever there's been a tornado warning box on the radar. We hear them a lot throughout the summer," said Oak Park resident Ned Moody.

But Downers Grove officials say there is a danger of overuse.

"If the sirens go off too often, after awhile people take them for granted," said Mayor Tully. "They don't take them seriously, and that also can have potentially devastating consequences."

Still, officials are now reviewing their long-standing policy.

As for storm victim Jerry Yoksoulian, he gives the village a pass.

"I don't blame them for not signing off with a tornado. Maybe some people wouldn't have liked it," said Yoksoulian.

There were no serious injuries reported in Downers Grove.

ABC7also spoke to an official in Mount Prospect, which also had tornado damage, and they cited similar reasons for not activating their sirens. There was no information, the official said, suggesting a tornado was imminent.

There is a danger in sounding a warning too early, and officials say they have to consider that as well.

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