Friday, November 24th, 2017

The siren call of taxpayer seduction


The text from an e-mail I received at 2:18 AM this morning:

The National Weather Service in Milwaukee/sullivan has Issued A High Wind Warning, Which is in effect Until 4am CST Early This Morning.
* Timing, Through 4am this Morning.
* winds, Southerly winds Gusting to 50 to 60 MPH for a Few Hours.
* Impacts, Trees and Power Lines Could Come Down or Experience Damage. Loose Objects will Blow Around. High Profile Vehicles May Become Difficult to Control.

These winds are Non – thunderstorm winds Occurring in the Wake Of The Departing Showers and Storms. The Departing Thunderstorms Create Sharply Contrasting Small High and Low Pressure Systems That Generate Strong winds for a Few Hours.

Precautionary/preparedness Actions

A High Wind Warning Means a Hazardous High Wind Event is Expected or Occurring. Sustained Wind Speeds of at Least 40 MPH or Gusts of 58 MPH or More Can Lead to Property Damage.

It so happened that I was awake at the time that the e-mail came in. My wife, the Lovely Doreen from Waukesha, was returning from work and I was puttering about the house in the odd schedule I keep. We both remarked on the high winds and wondered at the cause. My wife said, “Well, it’s not a tornado because it would be quite still out there.” As I did not hear a siren, my wife and I went about the things we were getting done before bedtime. I overheard her tell someone today that she felt the wind buffeting the vehicle on her drive home along Capitol Drive so I know the warning was apt.

But, as I said before, I never heard a siren.

Neither did the residents of Eagle. Fortunately, the lack of a siren did not cause any fatalities. However, had the storm that destroyed so many homes in Eagle occurred a few hours later when most of the community was sleeping, surely the lack of a siren rousing some residents out of their sleep could have had more tragic results.

That fateful night, my wife and I followed the weather assiduously. Unfortunately, as the precision of the technology for observing the weather has grown, so has the complication for the consumers of the information. I’m an educated man but it would take a keener eye and a much bigger television than those in my possession to discern whether our location falls into one of the handy boxes on the map behind the local meteorologist.

My children discerned the threat to our home the way children so often do. When the lightning flashed and the thunder roared, they immediately sought confirmation from their parents that everything was all right. After a couple of minutes of saying, “So far the worst of it is missing us,” the siren came.

We moved the children down to the basement, my wife and I lugging our laptop computers along so I could follow Twitter and the radar while my wife could monitor Facebook and other radar. I was sent on fool’s errands, first to retrieve my daughter’s stuffed bear (our most precious possession) and then to drag the older dog at least as far down as the laundry room level. I believe I promised my wife I would haunt her should anything bad happen to me. I told my children not to worry as this was an extremely frequent occurrence while living in Wisconsin and they might as well get used to the idea that part of their lives will be spent listening to loud sirens and then heading into the basement.

For as long as I remember, the sirens were a part of the drill. Many of my misspent and carefree summer days as a child were interrupted by the sirens. We understood them and then would head into the basement of a friend’s home (I was rarely at home during the day) where we would wait out the storm. The sirens then seemed more common than now, and I suspect it was because the precision of the warning was lacking so sirens had to sound over a wider area. On a couple of occasions, tornados did come relatively close and we would drive by the (thankfully) minimal damage and remark that the tornado must’ve twisted that freeway sign or knocked the trees down or whatever.

The other night as my family gathered in the basement, we followed the weather until the time that it was clearly past us before going back upstairs to put the children back to bed. Then I checked a few blogs to see what was happening elsewhere. Since the storm appeared to be heading south and west of us, I checked on those bloggers first.

Kevin Fischer, of whom I have written before, posted what I thought was a rather odd comment on his blog.

By Kevin Fischer
June 21, 2010

A storm is approaching. Take the necessary precautions.

The preceding cost you, Franklin taxpayers, nothing.

Warning sirens that may or may not have worked would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

When I saw that Fischer was making a special announcement, for a moment I thought someone cooked a bratwurst in white wine or some unfortunate politician was observed ordering a Bud Light, crimes worthy of the all caps headline in Fischer’s world. It turns out, he was using the storm as an occasion to mock the idea of Franklin installing a siren alarm system. In a later post, he draws attention to a study of weather sirens and uses the conclusions to support his contention that the installation of new sirens in Franklin was a waste of taxpayer money.

Without going too deeply into the merits of Fischer’s position, I was not aware that the installation of warning sirens was even controversial. Really, in this day and age, who depends solely upon the technology of the computer and their television? I saw one of the commenters suggest everyone buy a weather radio. There is only one problem with relying on such a device, or a regular radio, or the television, or even Mr. Fischer’s timely warning: you have to be awake and actively using those technologies for them to be effective.

Even the article which Fischer uses to support his arguments says, “Sirens, frequently cited in warning research literature as the second most common source of weather warning information for the general public, are a passive warning method. The average person can have no television, radio, or phone service, and be complete ly unaware of a severe weather threat and yet still be warned when a severe weather threat is imminent. All other technologies require some sort of action by the end user, even if a person receives the necessary equipment for free.”

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