Broken tornado sirens will be part of FEMA review in Congress

A Scripps News investigation found old and nonfunctioning outdoor emergency systems in communities across America.
Posted at 8:58 PM, Jun 21, 2023

The chairman of a homeland security subcommittee in Congress is calling on FEMA to step up efforts to help communities upgrade decades-old outdoor siren systems relied upon during tornadoes and other sudden emergencies.

A Scripps News investigation discovered towns across the country struggling with sirens — many built during the Cold War era — that are no longer reliable.

After learning of the findings in the Scripps News investigation, Rep. Anthony D'Esposito, chairman of the Subcommittee on Emergency Management and Technology, said he will address siren challenges in an upcoming review of FEMA.

"When you don't have cell devices, when you don't have cell service, you need to rely on those 50-year-old sirens," said D'Esposito, a Republican from New York. "I think they're critical."

Scripps News identified 24 incidents since 2019 when sirens didn't go off during testing, or worse, in the middle of severe weather.

An outdated siren system prevented outdoor alarms from sounding in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, when an EF4 tornado struck in March. Thirteen people died. 

The cost of newer sirens prevented the county from installing a modern system, said Angela Jenkins, Sharkey County head dispatcher.

"When you're operating with limited funds you have to use what you got," Jenkins said.

Leaders in Hennessey, Oklahoma, discovered obsolete copper wiring had silenced all of the sirens in their town in the heart of "tornado alley."

Hennessey leaders approved a $171,000 upgrade.

"It's a very expensive endeavor," said Bert Gritz, a member of the Hennessey Board of Trustees.

Debris from a tornado in Mississippi

Mississippi tornadoes kill at least 26, injure dozens overnight

The tornado hit about 60 miles north of Jackson, Mississippi, sweeping through towns at 70 mph without weakening as it raced toward Alabama.


D'Esposito said he's concerned rural communities may not be able to tap into federal FEMA grants available to help purchase new siren systems.

"They don't have the time or the resources to hunt down these grants and say, all right, how do we write these? What are the benchmarks that we need to meet?" D'Esposito said. "We're going to look at this in an aggressive manner and make sure that we get the information out."

Just knowing about those FEMA grants is only part of the challenge.

The Scripps News investigation discovered towns still have to fight for a limited amount of federal funding, and the competition is intense.

About 800 jurisdictions applied for $4.6 billion worth of grants in 2022.

That was twice as much as the $2.3 billion available.

Scripps News also found that there also are no national guidelines for how sirens should be installed, maintained, tested and replaced.

The federal government has not acted on longstanding calls from the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology for "the development of national codes and standards" for outdoor sirens.

"I don't see a problem with standardization of the sirens," D'Esposito said. "It would also avoid the situations that so many communities face where they say, 'Oh, man, this thing doesn't even work.'"

FEMA provided a statement to Scripps News that said the agency works with local officials to customize emergency alert systems.

"Each community and their needs can be very different," the FEMA statement said.