Yellowstone County's director of Emergency and General Services said Wednesday that the 17 outdoor warning sirens in Billings were not sounded before Saturday’s hailstorm because they’re reserved for occasions where potentially life-threatening weather or other events are occurring in the area.
Brad Shoemaker, who began work as the county's emergency services director on April 1, said he received “a number of public inquiries” on the topic, and county commissioners took many calls on why the sirens remained silent Saturday.
A number of people and agencies are authorized to sound the sirens — there are 24 sirens spread throughout the county — but only “if there is a credible threat based on information provided,” he said. The most common Yellowstone County event meeting that description is a tornado, he said.
While there was a tornado warning in northeastern Yellowstone County after hailstones had pounded the Billings West End, it wasn’t in an area covered by county sirens. Thus, “sounding the siren would have been incorrect since there was not a tornado warning in those areas," he said.
“By reserving use of the siren for truly life-threatening emergencies, the severity of an event is communicated to the public by sounding (the sirens), even though no voice information can be transmitted through the speakers, Shoemaker said.
On Saturday, warnings of the impending hail and windstorm came through two other channels, Shoemaker said:
- The Emergency Alerting System (EAS), a system that allows local governments to send emergency information through the National Weather Service to broadcast stations, which in turn relay the information to the public. According to Shoemaker, the weather service activated the EAS “and disseminated information to the public in a timely manner" on Saturday.
- NOAA Weather Radio — Through the weather service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration broadcasts weather-related information 24 hours a day, seven days a week on a designated frequency for south-central Montana. A NOAA weather radio tuned to that frequency can sound an alert tone for severe weather and alert the public to the weather condition. The weather service also broadcasts non-weather emergency information if a development threatens the public.
In addition to the 17 sirens in the Billings and Lockwood areas, two are in Laurel. Single sirens are located in Broadview, Shepherd, Huntley, Worden and Custer. The sirens are radio controlled and are activated from the Billings/Yellowstone County communications center, with a backup control at the Laurel communications center.
The sirens can be sounded individually, in zones or all at the same time.
They’re not sounded for thunderstorms or hailstorms, which are instead covered by the EAS and the NOAA radio systems.
“If we sound the sirens a bunch of times and nothing is happening, people will start to say, ‘They go off all the time. Don’t worry about it,’” Shoemaker said. “Multiple people can make the decision (to sound the siren), but the weight of the decision falls on us.”