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Tornado Sirens Sound Funny? It's Time to Duck and Cover

The warning sirens in Sedgwick County have two different modes: The alert mode, a steady tone used for tornadoes and tested most Mondays at noon, and the attack mode, a classic rise and fall sound used for air attacks.

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(TNS) - Sedgwick County, Kan., has a system for warning its residents about an impending nuclear attack.

You’ve probably already heard it.

Last time the county tested it in 2017, people called asking why the tornado sirens sounded weird.

The warning sirens in Sedgwick County have two different modes: The alert mode, a steady tone used for tornadoes and tested most Mondays at noon, and the attack mode, a classic rise and fall sound used for air attacks.

The second tone is the one that would likely be used in the event of a missile attack, said Cody Charvat, interim emergency manager with Sedgwick County.

Technically it can be sounded anytime the United States is under attack.

If Kansas came under attack, that siren wouldn’t go off in isolation.

There’s also the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, which allows federal, state and local authorities to send out alerts on phones, television and more. IPAWS is also the system used to send out a false missile alert throughout Hawaii on Saturday.

Unlike Hawaii, there’s no one person who could slip up and send an accidental alert, according to officials in Kansas.

Kansas has a two-step protocol for sounding a statewide alert. After the governor gives an order to set off IPAWs, two people are required to send the alert at the Kansas Division of Emergency Management, said Katie Horner, director of public affairs with the Adjutant General’s Department.

In the event of an actual nuclear missile, counties would likely send out their own alerts – including using those oft-heard tornado sirens.

A nuclear attack

Every state has conducted a ranking and analysis of possible risks.

Kansas is at greatest risk of weather events: flooding, winter storms, tornadoes.

Ranked much lower on the list is the possibility of a nuclear/radiological incident.

“It is something that is planned for, but its risk level is considered to be pretty low,” Horner said.

In Hawaii, some people hid in bathrooms, some in garages. Video surfaced later of a man helping a child down a storm drain. At the same time, some people were evacuated to the outdoors — the opposite of what emergency management agencies advise.

She says preparating for a nuclear missile attack is much like preparing for a serious weather event.

Horner follows the Department of Homeland Security’s suggestions from, dividing recommendations into three stages.

Before the disaster:


  •  Develop a family plan and make sure all members of the family understand it.
  •  Create an emergency kit with enough food, water and medicine to survive for up to two weeks.

During the disaster:

  •  Get underground, preferably with heavy and dense material between you and the fallout particles (or bad weather).
  •  Turn off fans, air conditioners and air heating units that bring in air from the outside. Close fireplace dampers.
  •  Take cover as quickly as possible.
  •  If caught outside during a nuclear detonation, don’t look at the flash. Lie on the ground. Remove outer clothing and wash with soap and water to remove radioactive contamination as soon as possible (don’t use conditioner, since it binds radioactive material to hair).

After the disaster:


  •  Stay inside for at least 24 hours (or more) unless told otherwise by authorities.

  •  Pay attention to radio, television and the internet for information on what to do and where to go.

Fallout radiation poses the greatest threat during the first two weeks, Horner said. After that, it declines to about one percent of its previous intensity.

The City of Wichita and Sedgwick County don’t have any community fallout shelters, Charvat said, although some municipalities in the county do. For most, the best thing will be to stay indoors.

“The other thing to consider is when there is such a concussion as a nuclear blast, often that energy wave will take out power grids,” Horner said. “You just have to think what would I do if I had no phone, no electricity, could I survive in that?”


In the event of a nuclear incident in Kansas, the Kansas Division of Emergency Management would be in charge of coordination, while the Kansas Department of Health and Environment would be the “primary agency.”

KDHE said in an email that it has 17 staff members in its Radiation Control Program who have advanced training in radiation sciences. The primary role of its staff would be to analyze radiological data and perform dose assessment and calculations, KDHE said.

KDHE also has a list of radiation professionals in Kansas who have volunteered for the Kansas Radiation Response Volunteer Corps. Those volunteers can monitor and are trained to perform radiological monitoring and decontamination with local health departments.

Ultimately, Kansas isn’t at great risk of a missile attack, Charvat said, and having prepared for tornadoes can be just as valuable should that happen.

“Take the same basic approach to planning for this disaster as we would for anything,” Charvat said. “We don’t want people going around living their lives in fear. If they’ll invest just a few hours into planning and preparation for any disaster, they’ll be able to rest easier knowing they and their family are ready for whatever might come their way.”

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess


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