Tornado Sirens in C-U

Tornado siren at the intersection of Philo Road and Windsor Road in Urbana, ILIt is officially springtime and we are heading into ripe storm territory. Luckily for those of us in Urbana and Champaign, we have an abundance of tornado sirens to warn us of impending danger. These lifesaving devices that can be heard on the first Tuesday of the month during testing are actually a fairly old technology.

Tornado sirens were first used in 1970. [1] However, this wasn’t the first time the idea of a tornado warning system was thought of. The first plans for tornado warnings were from the 1880s. The idea was to install telegraph wires that could snap in high winds. “The broken telegraph circuit would alert the town by automatically triggering alarm bells and firing a cannon.” [2]

It doesn’t matter the year, tornadoes are always a threat. However, from 1887-1938, tornado warnings were perceived as a bigger threat, probably because people were proposing to shoot off canons, but really because researchers believed the warnings themselves would promote panic. The U.S. Weather Bureau banned the word tornado in all warnings and use of “the word tornado in forecasts was discouraged until 1950.” [1]

The first siren in Champaign-Urbana, according to the News-Gazette, was installed in 1960 as a dual purpose siren. [3] Its first use was as an air raid siren during the Cold War. At the time the article was written in 2004, six new sirens had been installed in Champaign due to the growth of the city bringing the total to 39 sirens between Champaign, Urbana, and the U of I campus.

As the city’s boundaries continue to expand, it is very likely that the number of sirens will continue to expand as well. Regardless, the cities of Urbana and Champaign have got your back should the time come for the sirens to be sounded. No cannons needed.

- Shalini Smith
  Archives Assistant

[1] “Tornado Sirens, an Old Technology, Still Play a Vital Role”, The New York Times, 23 May 2016, Retrieved 2019-04/17.
[2] “The history (and future) of tornado warning dissemination in the United States,” American Meteorological Society, May 2011, Retrieved 2019-04/17.
[3] “Six new sirens set to join Champaign warning system, News-Gazette, 5 April 2004.