Many people sought shelter late Sunday night after sirens and phone alerts warned them of incoming tornadoes in the Chicago area, and officials attributed the low number of casualties to the emergency alert systems. But some people complained that they didn’t hear municipal sirens or receive phone alerts and didn’t realize they were potentially in danger.
To avoid a repeat of that situation with the next storms, city officials and weather watchers advise taking steps now — not waiting for the next storm watch or warning. They say municipal sirens are intended mainly to reach people who are outdoors, not inside their homes, and recommend taking steps to turn on phone alerts, download weather apps with alerts or buy a weather radio.
The National Weather Service’s Chicago-area office said the “relatively small” number of serious injuries Sunday was because people took action when warnings were issued. The weather service said the storm was a reminder of “the importance of having multiple means to receive a warning.”
The Emergency Outdoor Warning Siren System is the most prominent alert system used to warn people of inclement weather or danger, according to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. It is activated by county, city and emergency management officials.
DuPage Public Safety Communications activated its tornado sirens at 10:48 p.m. Sunday in Woodridge and the nearby communities. Tornado sirens were activated at 11:07 p.m. in Naperville, according to city officials.
Bill McDonald of Naperville, however, said he, his next door neighbor and many others on a community message board reported they did not hear a warning siren.
Woodridge police said in a social media statement that people often mistakenly believe that the sirens should be audible inside their home, but they are only intended to warn people who are outside with no access to other warnings.
The weather service said sirens alone are not an effective alert system and should be used in conjunction with local media and weather radio reports.
Another way that some were warned of the impending tornadoes was through automatic emergency alerts on their cellphone. But people reported that some phones in their household sounded alerts and others did not.
Victoria Siljendahl of Elmhurst, for example, said while some in the area received phone alerts and took cover in residence basements, she and a few other Verizon wireless users in the area did not receive them, even though tornado sirens were activated in Elmhurst.
“My phone didn’t go off. God forbid if we were in Naperville or Darien, who knows what could have happened,” Siljendahl said.
McDonald said he and his wife received alerts five minutes apart.
Telecommunications companies said that individual users must make sure they have turned on the phone setting that allows the alerts to sound.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency partners with wireless providers — such as Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile — to send out Wireless Emergency Alerts, from authorized public agencies. These alerts are broadcast to the geographic area affected by an emergency, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
A spokeswoman for T-Mobile confirmed that the company issued four alerts Sunday between 9:43 p.m. and 11 p.m. A spokesman for Verizon also confirmed alerts from the National Weather Service were sent out to its users.
According to information provided by Apple, iPhones and Apple Watches’ default settings enable government alerts, and most U.S. wireless carriers support the national alert system with few exceptions. A spokesman for Google said that Android phones’ default settings also allow for government alerts.
Various cellular providers told the Tribune that in order to ensure receipt of emergency alerts, people should: make sure their devices support emergency alerts by checking their provider’s website; update the device to its latest software; and ensure they haven’t opted out of emergency alerts.
Weather watchers recommend taking further steps than simply turning on alerts.
Curtis Lergner, founder of the Chicago & Midwest Storm Chasers group, was on I-80 when a significant tornado touched down Sunday night. He said there can be a very limited amount of time between hearing the tornado sirens or a text alert and getting to safety.
“There’s no way to get an alert out that fast,” he said. “Weather is very unpredictable.”
Lergner suggested people download a weather radar app on their phones and pay attention to additional alert systems such as a weather radio or local broadcast news station.
Another storm tracking group, Illinois Weather, said in a statement that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather radio is the best, most reliable way to receive weather updates and warnings. Illinois Weather did not recommend relying solely on sirens or social media.