SEVERE WEATHER: Hennepin County to debut high-tech sirens - KMSP-TV

SEVERE WEATHER: Hennepin County to debut high-tech sirens

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GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. (KMSP) -

With warmer temperatures in the forecast, severe weather season has begun -- but Hennepin County officials are about to launch a new, high-tech siren system they say will be faster and more specific.

For decades, tornado sirens have been set off for parts of a county when a storm is approaching. That left many people looking to the sky and wondering why they didn't see anything above them. Now, the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office has a new system that aims to pinpoint exactly where the sirens sound based on who needs to hear them.

The 911 Center sits on a hilltop in Golden Valley, filled with state-of-the-art things -- except for one beige box that is four decades old. It has a phone hanging off the side and is covered in buttons and labels -- and that is how they sound the tornado sirens. When the phone rings, a button is pushed by hand.

"The way it works is: The National Weather Service calls on this phone and says, 'Hey! There's a tornado on the ground,' or 'There's a tornado in the area,'" Capt. Jim Bayer said. "They'll tell us whether it covers the whole county or just particular parts of the county."

The problem with that is that Hennepin County is split into four zones, and that's as specific as the sirens have been able to be. As a result, people tend to ignore them.

In another room, computer monitors are the new system displaying all 265 sirens in Hennepin County, which are marked with different colors depending on which city owns them. Now, the county will be split into 20 zones instead of 4; however, the system can be even more specific than that.

"Based on the polygon and the direction it's moving, it'll decide which sirens are set off," Bayer explained.

The system will pick and choose specific sirens, not just the zones they're in based on the tornado boxes from the National Weather Service. As soon as those alerts are sent out, the computer will automatically sound the relevant sirens. That means that anyone who hears a siren in Hennepin county knows a threat is on the way, not halfway across the county.

Crews have been testing the system manually for a while, but the first fully automated test comes on Thursday. They will keep testing it for a few weeks and hope it will be fully functional by the end of May.

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