June hasn't been a particularly good month for anyone depending on emergency sirens for warning them of impending trouble.
In early June, false volcano warnings sounded over 50 tsunami sirens in Clallam, Jefferson, Grays Harbor and Pacific counties were caused by a software programming error in a button used to test the sirens, a Peninsula Daily News story reported. Apparently, instead of sending out a test message when pressed, it sent out a real warning of a volcanic eruption along the Pacific and Strait of Juan de Fuca coasts.
Then in mid June, tornado sirens were sounded 9 minutes late in Shawnee County, Kansas, television station KTKA news reported. Both human and computer error were originally faulted, but it turns out installation issues with the new tornado siren system were at fault as well. New software was installed after the incident to prevent it from happening again.
Then this week, 10 tornado warning sirens failed to sound in northwest Rochester, Minnesota as an EF-1 tornado came through because software that was supposed to turn them on didn't work properly. According to this Post-Bulletin story,
"The local computer system was upgraded about three weeks ago, but it had problems and crashed a few times, so the old software was reinstalled, he said. However, it failed to accept one file on Thursday evening - the one that controlled sirens for northwest Rochester, which was where the tornado hit."
The software was fixed the next morning, but government emergency management officials said the computer company was still trying to figure out what went wrong.
Emergency management officials in Rochester also said that people should not depend on sirens alone for their storm warnings.
Good advice. However, other warning systems can have problems as well. Last year, I wrote about software problems with an emergency email/text message/phone warning notification system in Ft. Collins, Colorado - also coincidentally in June.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.