New Emergency Sirens Sound Off, Saving Lives During 2019 Missouri Tornado


Tornados can strike anywhere if the conditions are right.  Warning systems continue to improve over time, and when a tornado is on the ground, seconds count.

In 2011 a deadly EF-5 tornado—winds more than 200 mph, top of the Enhanced Fujita Damage Scale—took 161 lives in Joplin, Missouri.


The catastrophic event, which brought down nearly 7,000 homes, a hospital, and other public buildings, prompted a wave of initiatives throughout the state to reduce risks to lives and damage to property in the path of another disaster.

One such initiative took place about 200 miles north of Joplin. The destruction of the Joplin disaster compelled officials in Cole County and Jefferson City, the state capital, to take stock of their own emergency warning sirens. 

“The old system was within Jefferson City limits,” said Bill Farr, Cole County emergency management director. “They were old-style World War II civil defense sirens, run by three-phase electricity [alternating current] and gear-driven.  Maintenance costs were unbelievable. Parts were not made any longer for repair. It was time for upgrades and replacement.” 

In June 2011, the county and city agreed to a proposal to replace 28 sirens.

The cost of new sirens averaged between $30 - 35,000 each; the entire system ran about $750,000. Funding came from several county or city projects from a capital improvement sales tax used for infrastructure and public safety projects. Solar-powered sirens are a big plus when the electricity is out. Sirens operate digitally by computer.  This format is easy to understand and have no moving parts. Staff who work 9-1-1 operations can see the location of all sirens on a computer screen. Working properly, the siren display is green. If not, the display is red, prompting a call for maintenance.

Completed within a year, the joint Cole County-Jefferson City siren project saves lives. Eerily, on May 22, 2019, the eighth anniversary of the 2011 Joplin tornado, Mother Nature challenged the new emergency sirens. A strong line of storms spawning an EF-3 tornado (136-165 mph winds) plowed through Cole County and Jefferson City. Neither the city or county reported fatalities among the more than 123,000 residents. People heard—and heeded—sirens blaring a message about an approaching tornado.

Joe Gassoway, Jr. lives a block parallel to where the tornado touched down in Jefferson City.  “I heard the second siren after hearing the wind pick up, felt my house shake, grabbed my cat and headed toward the cellar,” Gassoway said. He stood at the top of the stairs under the doorway, fearing the cellar would flood from the heavy rain that day. A former New Orleans resident and Hurricane Katrina survivor, Gassoway knows what weather can do. Trees fell on and totaled his car and onto his roof, but he remained unhurt—except for cat scratches. After emergency responders helped Gassoway, he checked on his neighbors. Most told him they had heard the siren warnings. 

Lt. David Williams of the Jefferson City Police Department said resident feedback was positive.

“After Joplin, people paid attention. Sirens made a big difference. A digital message sent with the siren blast indicated a tornado was on the way. “Watches and warnings came from the National Weather Service feed into the Jefferson City Police Department, joint communications center for the city and county,” said Williams. He provides a chronology of tornado movement, storm damage and siren activity that night, just before midnight. National Weather Service warnings spurring siren blasts occurred over a span of 30 minutes; damage reports came into the 9-1-1 system as the tornado passed.

Tested once a month, the sirens, Lt. Williams states, “were evaluated the week before the May 22 event and again on May 28-29.” All sirens were in working order. As a test, the sirens sound the first Thursday of the month at 4 p.m.   The sound is not of a siren, but of the Westminster Chimes, delivered through a digital voice message.  Siren blasts occur only once a year, in March, during a statewide tornado drill. Two weeks after the May 22 tornado, Emergency Management Director Farr said Cole County received a grant disbursed by the State Emergency Management Agency for an additional siren, bringing the total to 30 countywide.

Cole County and Jefferson City officials and most importantly—residents—feel safer with the sirens. As Williams says, “… people listened on that day and they knew what to do.”

Key Takeaways

Last updated