Dane County’s 911 Center officially sounded sirens at least nine minutes after a tornado warning had been issued last month during a storm that damaged numerous homes and an elementary school in Verona.
The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning at 11:51 p.m. on June 16. 911 Center Director John Dejung said the sirens were activated at midnight. It then takes approximately 30-90 seconds for the sirens to sound.
An EF3 tornado, with estimated wind speeds of 140 miles per hour, hit Verona at approximately 12:10 a.m., destroying more than a dozen homes and causing significant damage to Country View Elementary School.
"A nine-minute delay is absolutely unacceptable when there's an EF3 tornado," said Dane County Supervisor Mike Willett, who lives in Verona. "Walking through the tornado damage and seeing what was there and seeing that nobody was hurt, that nobody died is simply amazing, very lucky in that this system went off late. It wasn't a problem this time, but really the answer is it needs to not happen again."
The June 16-17 tornado was the first to use the new Dane County siren system, which is designed to allow authorities to target warnings to areas at greatest risk. The new system allows a 911 operator to automatically activate a NWS warning or to manually activate sirens to reach a different area than what's specified in the NWS warning.
The night of the Verona tornado, a Dane County 911 operator used the manual option to activate the tornado sirens, presumably to widen the areas being warned. The automatic option is assumed take no more than a minute.
In an email sent to a Verona resident who complained about the delay Dejung said, "As we experienced the night of the Verona tornado however, this step (manually determining the area to be warned) can take an extra couple of minutes."
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi -- who told News 3's Susan Siman on Live at 5 the day of the tornado that the warning system had worked -- was not aware of the length of delay associated with the siren activation until days after the tornado. His office said the NWS warnings will be automatically followed in the future.
"Our office heard about a delay due to manual activation to get a wider notification well after the tornado as the department reviewed the new upgraded system," Parisi spokeswoman Melanie Conklin said in an email to News 3. "That is why the county executive's office advised (the 911 Center) to use automatic notification going forward."
Conklin said sirens should be used primarily to warn people who are outdoors. She said weather radios, cellphone alerts and broadcast media outlets should also serve to help alert people when a serious situation arises.
Because of the new policy, in the four tornado warnings issued since the night of the Verona EF3, sirens were activated automatically within one minute of the NWS warnings. Dane County's Emergency Operations and the 911 Center communicate when it comes to activating the sirens and either can do so.
Broadcast media outlets like WISC-TV are plugged in to the NWS computer warning systems, so when a warning is issued, it immediately goes out over the station.
Verona Alder Dale Yurs serves on public safety committees for the city, and said the fact that no one was hurt proved people heeded other warnings from other mediums.
“Anything outside, that sound's blown around, and you can't rely on being able to hear that,” Yurs said. “Something that's inside your home, that's going to be able to wake you up, like a weather radio, a cellphone, an iPad, I think that's a much more reliable source than a siren, even if a siren sounded off the second that a warning was issued.”
Yurs said he noticed quicker sirens during the weather warnings since the tornado. He added he is confident the county is taking the delay as a learning experience.
Hope Sheaffer was woken up the night of the tornado by part of a tree falling on her house. She got her family to the basement before hearing the sirens.
“I think that's crazy. I think we are really lucky that nobody got hurt,” Shaeffer said, “There was just structural damage to everybody's houses.”
Rob Davis lives in one of the houses seriously damaged on Tamarak Way. His garage was destroyed, and debris damaged windows and siding.
Davis said his weather radio and cellphone were on a different floor the night of the tornado, but luckily he was awake when the storm was moving in. He woke up his wife and sons and moved them downstairs to safety, but didn’t hear the sirens.
“I always like to have secondary or tertiary methods to protect myself, so had we been sleeping at that point, I don't know. I don't know what would have happened,” Davis said.