After siren failure during November tornado warning, EMA tests new procedures for first time

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - The Huntsville-Madison County Emergency Management Agency tested sirens and trained on new procedures Wednesday, marking the first full-scale run through since sirens failed to sound during a November tornado warning.

In November, we took action to get answers about what happened and how the EMA would make sure it got it right the next time.

The EMA told us a single line of missing computer code caused the failure, but Director Jeff Birdwell also promised more rigorous testing and improved redundancies to prevent the same thing from happening again.

When they announced their first test since the incident, we held them to their promise.

Birdwell said they did internal testing after the initial incident, but weather prevented them from conducting a live test of the outdoor sirens in December. They don't run outdoor tests when there's any chance of bad weather to make sure they avoid public confusion.

Wednesday gave them their first crack at trying out new procedures, "What we were able to prove today was in a live-testing environment, the system is working correctly."

Birdwell said almost all of the sirens went off during the test. They have 128 sirens in Madison County. Birdwell said between five and seven didn't sound, but that was expected. They already knew those sirens were down. Their repair is scheduled over the next few weeks.

They also used the test as a training exercise for their new backup procedures. They're capable of triggering the whole county manually, if they realize sirens in the appropriate polygon aren't going off.

Birdwell explained, "Any time one goes off, we get emails, and it will basically say 'yes it went off' or 'there was a problem.'"

They've had that system for months, but problems prevented them from trusting it.

"We've had some sensor things that we've had to tweak, so we weren't 100 percent confident that some of the emails we were getting were giving us the right information that we needed," Birdwell elaborated, "We have tweaked that to where we're pretty confident when we get a failure notification, for lack of a better word, that it's an indication of what it is."

The director evaluates the test and training together.

Birdwell said, "This one is a success. I'm kind of old school and conservative. I always want that backup plan. That is probably for me today the more important thing today."

He added, "Yes, I'm glad the software system worked, but I'm probably more confident in our procedures to manually activate than I am anything at this point."