One weather siren in Scandia reportedly failed to function during the tornado that hit the area on Sunday, July 28. Sirens by Bone Lake, where the tornado hit, and at Big Marine Park Reserve and Manning just north of 180th Street did sound, while the siren located at the Scandia Fire and Rescue Station apparently failed to go off. Fire Chief Mike Hinz said those around that area didn’t hear the tornado siren sound, and when a service company checked it after the tornado, an error was indicated on the siren’s computer system. The service company has since repaired it.
The recent storm served as a reminder that storm notifications take many forms, and not all of them are available everywhere.
Doug Berglund, the director of emergency management for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, said the incident serves as a reminder to always be aware of the weather, especially when outside in a rural area.
“It comes down to personal responsibility,” Berglund said. “You have to be responsible for yourself to look out and say, ‘If I’m going to be in an area where I can’t get any information, it’s up to me to do some research.’”
Cities are responsible for the installation and upkeep of the sirens and are under no obligation by law to have them installed. County officials sound the sirens when a warning is needed, which, in addition to tornadoes, can also include severe thunderstorms with the potential for straight-line winds of more than 70 mph or when a public safety official requests activation due to an imminent threat to life or property. In Washington County, sirens may sound in certain parts of the county (north half vs. south half) due to the large territory. County officials also test the sirens by sounding them on the first Wednesday of the month at 1 p.m. from March through October. Hinz said that their sirens do not have automated report-back features on their sirens, so the county depends on residents to listen for the monthly tests to warn officials if they do not sound.
While Forest Lake and Wyoming are nearly completely covered by tornado sirens, some of the surrounding area is not.
Scandia has three tornado sirens in roughly 40 square miles of city, each of which cover about a 1-mile radius. In 2001, the city commissioned a study by Federal Sirens, a company that manufactures weather sirens. That study recommended the city maintain at least eight sirens. The city only has three so far, the latest being installed in 2013 thanks to a donation of two sirens from Forest Lake. The city currently has the installation of another siren budgeted in its capital improvement plan; a single siren can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $40,000. Hinz said in the past 14 years, the city has applied for grants to install more sirens, but the applications were denied and it seems to him that grant money has dried up. The hope is that by 2024 the city could install another single siren, but that likely will be dependent on being accepted for a grant.
The city of Columbus has no tornado sirens in its 47 square miles. According to city records, the idea of installing sirens was last broached in 2013 by a resident who indicated through a written document that they wanted to see them installed. The council declined to install sirens due to the prohibitive costs. A map of Anoka County’s tornado siren locations shows that Columbus is the only city in the county that does not own and operate sirens. Mayor Jesse Preiner said he remembers the discussion in years prior but added that the council has no current plans to discuss installing any sirens due to their cost and the amount of sirens it would take to cover the rural area with its spread-out population density.
Linwood has three sirens in its 37 square miles. There’s been no discussion about adding more sirens at this time.
“[Siren coverage] varies across the state, no doubt about that,” said Todd Krause, a warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Chanhassen. “It varies depending on how policy decisions are made, as sirens are costly. ... Some cities have plenty of sirens; others have chosen not to because of that cost.”
He’s heard of cities that purchased weather radios for its residents rather than installing sirens, but he said even that isn’t fool-proof, as those visiting the area might not have a form of warning.
Many people rely on weather sirens to warn them of dangerous storms, but county officials stressed that sirens are only meant to warn those outside to seek shelter and more information.
“A lot of the time, you cannot hear them indoors, because they’re not designed to penetrate buildings,” Hinz said.
Technology, specifically smartphones, have added another layer of warning of an impending storm for people in the area, but officials warn that people cannot rely solely on their phones, either. Multiple people who spoke with The Times recommended purchasing a weather radio, a small device around the size of a cellphone that will warn the user of incoming tornadoes, even outside cellphone coverage area. The radios can be programmed for specific and multiple counties. While Berglund stressed that it’s not his position to indicate to a city whether or not to install sirens, he noted that the possession of multiple methods of warning the public is key.
“You want to be able to have three-deep. … It’s a principle we stick with all the time,” he said. “The warning systems for impending weather is one of them. If one of those systems goes down, if we lose cell tower ability, we still have other ways of getting those warnings out to people.”