Preparedness

Why Don't Some Texas Cities Have Outdoor Warning Sirens? Curious Texas Investigates

The city of Dallas has 162 sirens to warn residents about an imminent weather emergency. Fort Worth has 153. But Austin, Houston and San Antonio have gone a different route.

by Jesus Jimenez, The Dallas Morning News / February 7, 2019

(TNS) - When there's a potential tornado threat to Dallas-Fort Worth, outdoor sirens let residents know, but not every Texas city operates the same warning system.

The city of Dallas has 162 sirens to warn residents about an imminent weather emergency. Fort Worth has 153. But Austin, Houston and San Antonio have gone a different route.

Austin Miller was born in downtown Dallas and grew up in Richardson and Garland, before moving to Houston. While living in the Houston area — first in Sugar Land and later in Cypress — Miller noticed the absence of the sirens he had grown used to in North Texas.

Miller wanted to know: Why don’t some areas in Texas have outdoor warning sirens? Miller’s question is part of Curious Texas, an ongoing project from The Dallas Morning News that invites you to join in our reporting process. The idea is simple: You have questions, and our journalists are trained to track down answers.

Cities have different reasons for skipping the sirens, but all have one common denominator: Technology makes them unnecessary.

In San Antonio, “tornado sirens are not a good fit” for a community of more than 400 square miles, according to the city’s office of emergency management website.

The site says the last three tornadoes in San Antonio didn’t show up on the area’s National Weather Service radar “making it all the more difficult to deploy a siren as a warning tool.”

Instead, the office suggests residents use radio, TV and social media, as well as weather radios to get their alerts.

Angel Flores, spokesman for the Austin Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, told the Austin American-Statesman that it would be “very expensive to build, develop and operate” a community siren warning system. The University of Texas at Austin has its own siren system, but the city itself does not.

Along with social media, radio and TV, Austin-area residents can also subscribe to WarnCentralTexas.org to receive emergency alerts.

In Houston, where Miller lived before returning to Dallas in 2006, the metropolitan area is too sprawling to have an outdoor siren system, according to Cory Stottlemyer, spokesman for the Houston Office of Emergency Management.

Instead of using sirens, Houston — like many other cities — can send mass warnings similar to Amber Alerts to residents. The city's system, Alert Houston, has the capability to geo-target specific areas within the city.

"This way we're not clogging people's inboxes and phones" if they are not impacted by an emergency, Stottlemyer said.

Dallas' sirens aren't just for tornadoes. They can also be activated for weather emergencies such as a severe thunderstorm warning with winds topping 70 mph or reports of hail 1.5 inches in diameter or larger, according to the Dallas Office of Emergency Management.

In Fort Worth, sirens can also be used in the event of a chemical spill emergency, a funnel cloud report by a reliable source, or a state or national emergency, according to the city’s emergency management office.

When sirens go off, those outside should immediately seek shelter in an interior room. Once in a safe location, the Dallas emergency office suggests checking local media for updates, and calling local fire or police only if immediate assistance is needed.

In Dallas and Fort Worth, the sirens are typically tested at noon on the first Wednesday of the month, when weather permits.

While outdoor sirens serve an important purpose, they can also be an annoyance if they malfunction. In April 2017, Dallas’ outdoor warning siren system was hacked, causing sirens to blare for almost an hour in the middle of the night.

Tell us:

What do you wonder about the weather in Texas?

You can send us your Curious Texas questions by texting "DMN" to 214-817-3868. Follow the prompts and introduce yourself to us, share your story or questions, and we'll text you with information as we report the story.

———

©2019 The Dallas Morning News

Visit The Dallas Morning News at www.dallasnews.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.