Sirens, phone alerts warn of severe weather

Hinsdale residents heard sirens the night of June 20 when a fast-moving tornado tore through parts of nearby Woodridge.

The intergovernmental agency responsible for sounding the sirens is the DuPage Public Safety Communications, known as DU-COMM. Brian Tegtmeyer, executive director of DU-COMM, said residents heard a pair of blasts from the Emergency Outdoor Warning Siren System.

“We activated them twice: first on the tornado warning and the second time on the reported tornado,” Tegtmeyer said.

DU-COMM operates as the countywide arm of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, serving 22 communities in DuPage. Tegtmeyer said his agency has four specific criteria for activating the sirens (see sidebar), usually in response to reporting from the National Weather Service.

“When (the NWS) issues a warning for any part of DuPage County, we generally activate the system for all of DuPage County,” he said, noting that was the case on June 20.

The three-minute sirens can be regionalized if the threat is deemed more narrow in scope. But a wider alert is considered the more prudent option.

“If it’s in Woodridge, there’s nothing that’s going to prevent it from heading to Hinsdale next,” Tegtmeyer said. “But if it’s in northwest Cook County, we’re not usually going to activate it for Burr Ridge.”

A local official, such as elected village board member or police or fire department personnel, also can call for the siren’s activation based on his or her observations.

“If the Hinsdale fire chief says, ‘Activate my siren,’ generally we’ll do it.”

Hinsdale Fire Chief John Giannelli said his department is alerted when DU-COMM is going into “storm mode,” meaning that some 9-1-1 calls will need to be fielded locally instead of through the DU-COMM call center. Giannelli said the department will respond during severe weather, but only when necessary, to avoid injury to officers and damage to equipment.

“We will dispatch in order of priority,” he said. “But unless there’s a call, we’re going to be in the station.”

Sirens don’t always mean a tornado threat. Tegtmeyer said they were activated for last August’s derecho when unusually strong winds blew across the area.

“We can activate the sirens in those cases, too. We don’t need it to be a tornado warning,” he said.

Residents also received alerts on their phones under the Wireless Emergency Alerts system. According to the Federal Communications Commission, the WEA is a public safety system that sends out geographically targeted, text-like alerts of imminent threats to safety.

“Consumers do not need to sign up for this service. WEA allows government officials to send emergency alerts to all subscribers with WEA-capable devices if their wireless carrier participates in the program,” the FCC states on its website.

Tegtmeyer and Giannelli urged people to stay tuned to weather reporting to determine when the danger has passed.

“There’s no ‘all-clear’ siren, and it is not all clear when the sirens stop,” Tegtmeyer said. “If people hear a second siren, that means the (threatening) conditions exist again.”

Giannelli said people should remain in their basements or other safe locations until that point. And afterward, take extreme caution if venturing outside to assess any damage.

“They need to be very careful with tree limbs and downed power lines,” he said. “Watch where you’re walking and don’t touch anything metal, like a fence, because you could be electrocuted.”

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean