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Rock, Walworth counties deal with unexpected sirens

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Mike Heine
Stacy Vogel
January 8, 2008

Residents on the northern and western Rock County might have wondered where the dangerous weather was as they listened to tornado sirens howl Monday afternoon.


Meanwhile, the sirens in Genoa City in Walworth County remained silent as a tornado churned overhead.


The tornado warning issued for southeastern Rock County and the southern and eastern portions of Walworth County took everyone by surprise Monday. After all, Wisconsinites don’t see many tornados in January.


But Rock County dispatchers were only following policy when they sounded sirens countywide, even though the tornado warning was issued for only one corner of the county, said Shirley Connors, emergency management coordinator.


“Tornados are so unpredictable, and they can switch so quickly, so we would rather have (the sirens) go over the entire county,” she said.


The National Weather Service is getting better all the time at predicting when and where dangerous weather will hit, meteorologist Mike Kochis said. It has software that defines exactly what areas a warning covers.


Alerts now name major cities included in the warning and the time the storm is expected in each city.


Monday’s warning covered the cities of Williams Bay, Lake Geneva, East Troy and Delavan, Kochis said.


“In this case, it appears that they were fairly localized, individual storms,” Kochis said. “In those cases, you can get pretty specific in saying it was in the east or southeast part of a county.”


The Rock County system allows dispatchers to trigger individual sirens, but Dave Sleeter, director of the Rock County Communications Center, said he wouldn’t want his dispatchers forced to make that decision in the middle of a storm.


“That decision gets kind of tough when you’re in the middle of an alert and you don’t have much time,” he said.


The policy to always sound sirens countywide is set by the 911 Communications Commission, a group of county police and fire officials, Sleeter said. The commission has discussed the issue several times over the past decade, he said.


Sleeter agrees with the commission’s policy, but at the same time, he doesn’t want the sirens to go off so often that people start ignoring them, he said.


Connors doesn’t think that’s a problem, she said. Sirens are alerts for people to turn on their radios, televisions or computers to get more specific information, she said.


“It needs to be brought to attention that there is severe weather in the county,” she said.


That alert wasn’t brought to the attention of Genoa City residents, even though the tornado warning covered their area. Sirens there failed to go off Monday.


“It’s pretty upsetting because we pay so much taxes and we can’t even have a tornado siren go off,” said Shannon Beck, a village resident.


“What do we have to do? We have to wait until it’s too late? Until it touched down?”


The Walworth County Sheriff’s Department dispatchers set off the tone to activate the sirens at 3:31 p.m., said Communications Capt. Jay Maritz.


The signal, which is broadcast on fire paging frequencies, sets off the tornado sirens in all the communities the sheriff’s department dispatches for, including Genoa City, Maritz said.


The sirens went off elsewhere in Walworth County but not in Genoa City.


Maritz said the problem seemed local. There were no other problems reported elsewhere in the county, he said.


“Either A, their siren is broke, or B, their tones are not programmed correctly for whatever reason,” Maritz said.


Genoa City officials are diagnosing the problem.


“We’re trying to get an assessment of what happened and why,” Bloomfield/Genoa City Fire Chief Brad Poltermann said. “At this point, we’re not really sure why they didn’t go off. We’re investigating it.”


Poltermann expects the fire department, police and the village board to discuss protocols on what to do when the siren fails to wail. It can be set off manually, he said, but that didn’t happen Monday afternoon.


“That’s another thing I’m looking into,” he said. “Who in the village is responsible for setting them off and who is responsible for giving the all clear. I don’t know. I haven’t seen the policy.”


There should have been a backup plan, Poltermann said.


The village was spared any significant damage, police Sgt. Mike Sireno said.


Beck’s family took precautions because of her weather radio. She said the village should have done something to warn residents, maybe even sending out police with megaphones.


“It could be too late next time this happens,” Beck said.


TO LEARN MORE

What: Rock County is holding two classes for tornado spotters.


When: Noon Monday, March 10, at the Rock County Health Care Center, 3530 N. County F, Janesville, and 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 10, at the Milton Fire Station, 614 W. Madison Ave., Milton.


More information: To register, call (608) 758-8440.



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