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Wow, those sirens wailed

For a time Friday night, it might have seemed to people of Cold War age that missiles were incoming, bombers were approaching and the Red Army was trampling through Larimore and Emerado on a beeline for Grand Forks.

Grand Forks siren locations
Grand Forks uses a network of 14 sirens, supplemented by four new sirens on the UND campus, to warn of the approach of potentially severe weather. They wail at 130 decibels at 100 feet, comparable to a train whistle, and are meant to alert people who are outdoors and otherwise unaware of dangerous weather approaching. East Grand Forks coordinates the use of its four sirens with Grand Forks through the cities' 911 emergency centers.

For a time Friday night, it might have seemed to people of Cold War age that missiles were incoming, bombers were approaching and the Red Army was trampling through Larimore and Emerado on a beeline for Grand Forks.

Sirens wailed in the besieged city, and TV screens warned in garish red and doomsday purple of the gathering storm. Flashing arrows -- lightning strikes or heavy artillery? -- filled the outlines of counties to the immediate west.

It made it tough for some to nap or watch a Twins game or mow the yard in contemplative peace. But that's sort of the idea behind sirens.

The National Weather Service tallied four confirmed touchdowns in the region Friday: 6:30 p.m. near Forest River, N.D.; 6:47 p.m. northwest of Larimore, N.D.; 7:02 p.m. north of Manvel, N.D.; and 7:43 p.m. two miles west of Grand Forks. Also, a funnel cloud was reported in Grand Forks near Interstate 29 and 32nd Avenue South at 7:22 p.m.

Grand Forks' 14 sirens, plus four sirens on the UND campus, first sounded at 6:49 p.m. Friday, city spokesman Kevin Dean said. At 130 decibels, the sound at 100 feet is comparable to a train whistle and is meant to alert people who are outdoors and unaware that severe weather is approaching.


The sirens sounded four more times, at 7:01, 7:17, 7:22 and 7:27, Dean said, each time for three minutes, "because the weather situation kept changing."

East Grand Forks has four sirens and coordinates their use with Grand Forks through the cities' 911 centers, said Randy Gust, fire chief and emergency manager in East Grand Forks.

Making the call

Mark Frazier, meteorologist in charge of the weather service office in Grand Forks, said that forecasters, government officials and the media can't be afraid to make weather alerts a priority.

"When I lived down South, we had a tornado outbreak one year during the AFC football championship," Frazier said. Local television stations broke in with weather alerts "and were heavily criticized for it." But people were killed, he said, and others had been saved because of the warnings, "and the criticism went away."

Broadcasters "are trying to do the best job they can, and we're trying to give them the best information we can, as quickly as we can."

Frazier said he hasn't heard complaints about severe weather warnings interrupting TV-watching or other routines since he came to Grand Forks in October 2007. Likewise, Dean said no complaints were logged at Grand Forks City Hall over the weekend, and Gust said the only complaining he hears is from people who were indoors and couldn't hear the sirens.

"People sometimes do complain," Dean said, "but that's a minor inconvenience and a lot better than taking a chance by not issuing an alert. This storm looked like it might cause a lot of damage. In the end, we had a few branches down, a little flooding -- very minor compared to what could have been."


Cassie Walder, news director at WDAZ-TV, said her station logged no complaints about interrupted programming Friday night.

"The calls I took were from people who said they saw a funnel cloud or asking if a tornado was really coming toward Grand Forks," she said.

"If there is imminent danger, we would never put people's lives at risk so others could watch their programming."

Tripping the sirens

Outdoor warning sirens were introduced in the early 1950s as a way to warn of an impending enemy attack. They used an alternating wail as the attack warning and a steady tone to sound the all clear. As the fear of missile attack subsided, communities used the sirens to warn of severe weather. Some used them to summon firefighters.

The sirens are meant to be heard by people who are outdoors, "where you're most vulnerable to hail, high winds, lightning and tornado activity," Dean said.

Four circumstances will cause people at the 911 center to trip the sirens, and three of those situations occurred Friday night: The NWS issued a tornado warning for the city, spotters reported seeing a funnel cloud near the city, and a wall cloud capable of producing a tornado was reported near the city.

Straight-line winds of more than 58 mph also will bring the sirens into play, but that condition did not arise Friday.


"You can have one summer when you hear the sirens 10 times, but you might go five years without hearing them once," Dean said. "Some people think erroneously that we would sound them for flooding conditions, or to give an 'all clear' signal."

People sometimes call 911 seeking reassurance after hearing sirens, Dean said, despite efforts to discourage that.

"We know there's curiosity, but it's not an info line," he said. "If that had turned into a big storm Friday night, the 911 center would have been routing emergency people around the community. They wouldn't have had time to deal with questions."

Who decides?

At the weather service, the warning system can be triggered either by radar evidence of a tornado forming or eyewitness reports of a tornado on the ground or a funnel cloud lowering, Frazier said. "Last Friday, both of those were happening.

"When we issue those warnings, it is then up to local governments to decide whether they're going to sound their sirens. That varies. In some cases, sirens will sound for severe thunderstorms" in addition to a tornado.

Broadcast stations also make their own decisions about running "crawler" messages at the bottom of screens or breaking into programming.

"They have to decide whether they think this is potentially life-threatening," Frazier said. "It's a serious decision they're making. Anytime you have that kind of a threat in a populated area, you run that risk of widespread damage or a high rate of injuries or fatalities."

Professional weather watchers recommend that people invest in their own emergency alert system: a weather radio that can signal a threat at any time.

Such radios are available at local electronics retailers and over the Internet, Frazier said. They cost from $15 to $70 or more, depending on features, and weather service personnel will help program them. Two common brands, he said, are Oregon Scientific and Midland Radio.

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

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