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Black Hawk County seeks cause of tornado siren failure

Black Hawk County seeks cause of tornado siren failure

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WATERLOO — Officials are investigating a massive failure of Black Hawk County’s emergency warning siren system.

Sheriff Tony Thompson confirmed that none of the outdoor sirens sounded Saturday when two tornadoes rolled through the southern portion of the county.

Thompson and staff at the county Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the sirens, have been looking since Saturday for a reason the automated system was silent despite warnings issued by the National Weather Service in Des Moines.

“It sounds like we have a technical issue that was not previously detected between NWS and our system,” he said. “So the NWS sent the signal and it got lost in the system and did not get to our automated system to sound the sirens.”

The aging civil defense sirens are maintained by Radio Communications of Waterloo, but the system was automated in 2016 by American Signal Corp., which manages the system now.

The National Weather Service designates areas with weather emergencies and pushes the notification out, which is supposed to automatically trigger the sirens in the warning area.

“Now (the EMA’s internet) service provider is working with American Signal to figure out the disconnect,” Thompson said. “It doesn’t seem to be anyone’s fault. It seems to be a computer issue that is being resolved at this time between both entities.”

While EMA tests the sirens manually monthly, there has been no way to test whether an actual National Weather Service tornado alert would trigger them.

“This is the first time since 2016 that we’ve actually had a real tornadic episode to cause that to happen,” Thompson said. “The reality is the system didn’t work as it intended.”

Until the siren issue is resolved, EMA is planning to have staff ready when necessary to sound the sirens manually.

Meanwhile, Thompson reminded residents they should sign up for phone notifications about severe weather through Alert Iowa or even local TV stations. The phone notification system worked during Saturday’s storm system.

Outdoor sirens are not designed to be heard indoors.

“Those folks that think they should be able to hear and rely on an outdoor warning siren to let them know that they should seek sirens in the basements, that’s not what those sirens are for,” he said.

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