You know the drill: On the first Wednesday of each month at 1 p.m., sirens sound across the state. These are colloquially known to many as the tornado sirens, indicating that people should be aware of the risk of tornadoes and severe weather. But they’re actually much more than that.
What is the siren on the first Wednesday of the month?
The siren, officially called the “outdoor warning siren” is meant to alert people of multiple kinds of emergencies, most frequently that happens to be severe weather and tornadoes. That first Wednesday siren is both a test and a drill. It tests the functionality of our sirens while also testing Minnesotans’ emergency preparedness.
The drill has a unique history. It was originally put in place for safety purposes during WWII. According to Eric Waage, the emergency management director for Hennepin County, “the sirens that we use today really trace their ancestry to civil defense.” Waage says the first Wednesday of the month timing was a federal recommendation. ”That’s why the Wednesday timeframe came about because that was an old Civil Defense recommendation from the federal government.” Gradually, the Federal Government withdrew this recommendation, but left cities and counties with the de facto practice.
According to Waage, the siren can be an alarm for a slew of different emergencies, like hazardous materials leaks, civil defense issues, severe weather, high winds, and even large hail.
And as Waage said, it’s both a drill and a test. It tests cities’ and counties’ ability to sound the siren, while also functioning as an emergency drill for Minnesotans. Waage says the most important thing when the outdoor warning siren sounds on that first Wednesday is to think—how would I get into a safe indoor location, and how can I access more information. When faced with an actual siren, Ramsey county uses the motto “Get in and Get info.”
What am I hearing?
The sirens are controlled by individual counties and cities, so it may differ depending on where you are. According to Waage, in the metro area sirens usually start with a minute of a single tone pitch, then they’re followed by a minute of silence, then there’s a minute of the “civil attack tone,” as Waage calls it: an oscillating tone that indicates a civil defense emergency. “We don’t get to use that siren tone other than to test it. That tone is triggered by the federal authorities for civil defense purposes,” he says. However, some sirens rotate, which can be confused with the rising and falling of the attack tone, he says, so it’s important to note the difference and pay attention to the order in which the drill sirens are played.
It’s not standardized?
No, these sirens are not technically standardized, because there’s no law that says the drill has to happen on the first Wednesday of every month at a certain time, in a certain way, according to Waage. “It’s a voluntary arrangement through our emergency management association,” he says. As a result, some cities in Minnesota don’t fully abide by the first Wednesday thing, and siren testing doesn’t sound the same. Rochester, for example, tests its sirens multiple times per month, instead of just once and frequency changes based on the season.
“We want to limit the use to only once per month, and then limit the use during actual events to only be when we think that there’s a substantial risk to people’s lives,” Waage says. He points to something he calls “siren fatigue,” if people hear the siren too often, they won’t treat it like an emergency.
According to Waage, Minnesota is more or less on the same page when it comes to testing the sirens, aside from a few rogue cities or counties, but in other states it’s not as organized. Take Oklahoma. “It’s up to (cities) to decide when to sound their sirens and when not to, they test them in different ways, and that just produces confusion,” Waage says.
What’s more, the sirens themselves aren’t standardized. “There’s a wide variety of manufacturers, there’s a wide variety of ages, there’s a wide variety of technologies that are out there,” Waage says. The leftover Cold War era sirens were just removed in the past 10 years, Waage says. Most sirens today are battery powered and not connected to the grid, so they can remain functional during emergencies.
Why are we testing in the winter?
Since these drills alert for more than just weather, it’s important to test them year round. Also, climate change is making extreme weather events more frequent, which makes storm seasons less predictable. Tornadoes are most common in June and July in the upper Midwest, but climate change is creating conditions for unexpected storms, like the December tornadoes in 2021 or more recently, Iowa’s tornadoes on January 16th, for example.