WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – History in the making in Sedgwick County. This year marks 70 years since tornado sirens were put into play.
Back in 1952, they were not used to alert us to tornadoes.
“The Civil Defense Act of 1951 was passed by Harry Truman. Part of that Civil Defense Act mandated public fallout shelters for the Atomic Bomb as well as outdoor warning sirens that would warn the public of an Atomic Bomb blast,” said Jonathan Marr, deputy director of Sedgwick County Emergency Management.
On April 22, 1952, the first-ever air raid siren test sounded in Wichita.
Some of the oldest Thunderbolt sirens in the United States were still in use across Sedgwick County up until late last year.
“We have a Thunderbolt siren that many may be familiar with seeing. With the yellow cone that winds up and winds down,” said Julie Stimson, director of Sedgwick County Emergency Management.
That sound we are used to hearing during severe weather events gave mixed reactions after the first test.
“The first few tests that happened in 1952 and 1953, they had citizens upset about that noise. They also had citizens diving into ditches and taking cover because they thought a nuclear blast happened, and they were trying to protect themselves,” says Marr.
The art of public warning required trust, which took time. A dozen more sirens were ordered and installed.
The 1950s were an especially troubling time in Kansas history due to tornadic events. Tragedies occurred in Udall from a massive tornado in 1955 to the Ruskin Heights tornado in 1957, beginning southwest of the Kansas City, along with the El Dorado tornado in 1958.
The day after that tornado struck in Butler County, sirens, known to alert for an atomic bomb threat, were sounded for a potential tornado at 11:05 p.m. in east Wichita. It was the first world use as a tornado siren. The number of sirens grew through the 1960s and 70s. Today, there are 152 sirens in use which are tested every Monday when the weather is clear across Sedgwick County.
“What we have done with technology is that when the National Weather Service issues a polygon which shows us where the storm is and where it is going. Those will be the sirens that sound,” Stimson said.
“Interesting adding motherboards to 1950s mechanical equipment. A lot of the insides of these cabinets look like Frankenstein’s Laboratory. The fact we can control them with a computer is remarkable,” said Marr.
Communication, they say, is reliable, which is why it has been around so long.
“The outdoor warning system is designed to warn those who are outside who may not be around technology to go indoors and look for that information because something is coming, and they need to take action,” said Stimson.
Who would have thought sirens put into the ground 70 years ago would still be here.
The remaining four Thunderbolts from the 1950s are in the process of being refurbished. One of which will be installed at a local fire station as a landmark for you to visit and share a piece of history later this year.
Click here to view other severe weather preparedness stories.