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Tornado Siren Policy Confusion - Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Jun 14, 2011
Last week Wednesday, southern Wisconsin experienced its first severe weather episode this spring. In 2011, most of the severe weather has occurred outside of the Milwaukee metro area. The severe storms brought along some confusion for residents whether a tornado was on the ground in some parts of the area or if there was a mix up with regards to sounding the civil defense sirens.

For most of the severe weather duration, there was a tornado warning issued for Dane County which was appropriate as Doppler radar indicated a tornado. Indeed an EF1 tornado was confirmed by the National Weather Service (NWS). The storms eventually lined up into a bow echo and the remaining threat was from damaging winds. The storms entered Waukesha County, and the sirens were sounded throughout the area causing confusion while the county was under a severe thunderstorm warning. I had many friends wondering why the sirens were sounded when there was no tornado warning issued. This confusion resulted in residents thinking a tornado was imminent. Most people don't know that the tornado sirens can be used for high-end severe thunderstorm warnings in Waukesha County. The tornado warning sirens are sounded when a tornado warning has been issued, but also when the NWS advises local municipalities to sound the sirens for destructive damaging winds during a severe thunderstorm warning. This current procedure will continue to create confusion in the future as it did last week.

For many decades the sirens were only sounded for tornado warnings, but this started to change over the past decade. During the May 31, 1998 derecho (long lasting wind storm) there was widespread wind damage throughout the area with some deaths and injuries across the state. Waukesha and surrounding cities had soon adopted a policy to sound the sirens when high winds were a possible threat to residents. But, not every county adopts this procedure like Milwaukee for example. They on the other hand has the policy to sound the sirens only if a tornado warning is issued. No siren will be sounded if a severe thunderstorm warning contains hurricane force winds. Every area has their own set of procedures which can cause confusion.

May 31, 1998 Derecho - Waukesha, Wisconsin

Here is a possible scenario of a Waukesha County resident and why the siren confusion occurred last week Wednesday:

1. The Storm Prediction Center had issued a Severe Thunderstorm Watch for most of Central and southern Wisconsin. In the back of everyone's mind, severe thunderstorms were more likely than tornadoes.

2. Severe weather had been moving into South Central Wisconsin during the late afternoon with a number of severe thunderstorm warnings issued. As a resident, I'm thinking tornadoes are not the primary threat.

3. A tornado warning was issued for Dane County with a report of funnel clouds near Verona, Wisconsin. Now there seems to be a greater chance of tornadoes since a tornado warning was issued west of my location.

4. The storms moved into Jefferson, Rock and Walworth Counties that were beginning to produce widespread wind damage triggering additional severe thunderstorm warnings. Now, the tornado threat appears to have diminished with new severe thunderstorm warnings.

5. As the storms begin to enter Waukesha County the sirens are activated. Now from a resident stand point of view, the sirens are sounded, but no tornado warning was issued. Most people would be confused since the sirens are issued only if there are tornado warnings.

You can see why this caused a misunderstanding for residents across the county. Moving forward, it's still best to own a weather radio and listen during bouts of severe weather and know what type of warning is issued for your location. The tornado siren always indicates a possible tornado, but now with them being activated during high end severe thunderstorm warnings, you're best bet is to get your information from television and NOAA Weather Radio to cut down on any confusion during severe weather.


Jul 1, 2011 - 12:02 pm
I heard the sirens too. It was confusing to me, this post helped me but it's a little like crying wolf I think.
Apr 26, 2012 - 10:04 am
What's confusing? The siren is for warning people about severe weather. You hear it, get inside and take shelter. Why does it matter whether or not a tornado warning was called for... most people have no clue about what warnings have been issued.