Taking Action: Huntsville-Madison County EMA says computer code error left sirens silent during Tuesday’s storms

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - A missing line of computer code is being blamed for the failure of Madison County’s emergency sirens to sound Tuesday night amid several tornado warnings.

Huntsville-Madison County EMA Director Jeff Birdwell told WHNT News 19 Friday that the review is ongoing and will be methodical, but he believes they’ve identified the problem.

The EMA switched to a polygon based warning system – aimed at sounding sirens only in areas in the path of a potential tornado  -- just over a year ago. The system is supposed to sound sirens in areas – the polygon --  that the National Weather Service reports are under a tornado warning.

“From my understanding with the absence of this code, as the polygon was received from the National Weather Service, not having that code didn’t allow the software to recognize we had a warning,” he said. “And then past that point you don’t have a warning you don’t get any activation of the sirens.”

Birdwell said the sirens apparently didn’t sound related to six or seven different warnings Tuesday night, which involves multiple sirens. But, he said, the focus wasn’t really on counting up how sirens didn’t sound.

“Because when you have a total system failure which seems likely in this case, it all stops there,” he said.

Birdwell said EMA officials didn’t have a map or other display showing the overall system and which sirens were sounding. Testing of the sirens also showed no problems, he said.

“We’re going to have to change our procedures because right now the testing mechanism we have used over the past several months, still matches the old system,” he said.

The old system was largely manual, he said. A warning would be issued and they’d hit the button.

Both of those issues will lead to changes.

“The problem we’ve got to sift through, is that recognition phase,” Birdwell said. “We went for a period of time where we thought everything was working great.”

The changed gradually Tuesday night and more and more residents contacted the EMA informing them the sirens weren’t going off. Those calls led to EMA officials sounding sirens manually, but that’s not how the system is supposed to work.

Birdwell said the Huntsville-Madison County EMA has questions for its contractor. It’s been called upon three times since it was installed, he said. The first time, with about five tornado warnings ,worked well, the second time occurred during Panoply earlier this year.

Birdwell said a miscommunication with the vendor changed what was supposed to be a test for a given area to instead county-wide alarms going off. That led to concern at confusion and Panoply, but there was no actual tornado warning.

The third attempt was Tuesday night and the system didn’t work correctly.

Tuesday’s severe weather didn’t cause injuries or worse in Madison County as it did in nearby areas, so the failed sirens didn’t result in potentially dire consequences.

But Birdwell said there is much left to do.

“We didn’t have any injuries, no fatalities, we could have fared a lot worse, but that still doesn’t mean because we were fortunate that we’re not going to take this serious,” he said. “And do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”