To those who’ve lived in the Columbus area for a while, the weekly test of the county’s emergency sirens (“THIS IS ONLY...A TEST”) quickly becomes one of the few things you can count on like clockwork, week after week.
It actually can become a little bit of fun. Try walking around downtown during the market. When the sirens go off, at precisely noon, look at the crowd and see if you can spot the out-of-towners.
Visitors will be nervously scanning the sky like the Luftwaffe is coming for an air raid. Locals will be too busy grilling the produce vendor on the price of his microgreens.
But those sirens are important. For a lot of people prone to “waiting out” the weather, when the sirens go off, they know it’s time to get serious. That saves lives.
The sirens actually make six different tones, each one a warning for a specific threat.
On Saturdays, we hear three of those tones, in this order: a tornado warning, a severe thunderstorm warning, and an “all clear” sound.
Let’s start with the first two, because they can be easy to confuse.
- Tornado Warning
The tornado “alert tone” is sounded when the area has been placed under a tornado warning, or when a tornado is spotted. The sound goes up in pitch but then levels out — it does not go back down. Then it stops, starts back at the lower pitch, goes up and levels out again.
It sounds kind of like this:
- Severe Thunderstorm Warning
The severe thunderstorm warning “wail tone” is sounded when damaging winds and large hailstones are possible during a lightning storm. It sounds different than the tornado siren, because the pitch goes up, but then goes back down again — like a police or ambulance siren.
- The “All Clear” Sound
The all-clear “air horn” tone is sounded when the emergency is over. It doesn’t sound like a siren —it has a kind of scratchy “whomp” sound, that repeats several times.
Those are the three you’re most likely to hear, but there are some others. The sirens will sound a “whoop” tone if hazardous materials have been released into the area. There’s also another tone called the “attack” tone which is reserved for an unspecified use. An attack tone is usually a long, rapidly rising wailing sound that traditionally acted as an air-raid or nuclear threat siren.
The sirens can also play back recorded voice, like we hear on test days.
The warm summer weather, while usually delightful, can bring dangerous weather along with it. As we sit smack in the middle of hurricane season, it’s important to know how to read the early warnings keeping you safe. It’s better than using them to tell when its lunchtime on Saturday, in any case.
Scott Berson: 706-571-8578, @ScottBersonLE