Bud Kennedy

Fort Worth’s sirens malfunctioned in ’12, ’14 like Dallas’

When death came from the sky in the 2000 Fort Worth tornado, our first warning was from a Cold War-era outdoor siren.

Had the sirens downtown not sounded as the tornado crossed University Drive about 6:20 p.m. on a weekday, no telling how many workers or visitors might have tried to leave offices instead of taking cover from Fort Worth’s first deadly twister.

These days, when we hear sirens, we still check the news.

But we’re beginning to fear attacks as much as tornadoes, and Dallas’ citywide siren ordeal late Friday didn’t help.

Fort Worth officials now think a similar citywide siren malfunction in 2012 was caused by the same kind of radio signal attack as the Dallas incident, emergency management official Keith Wells said Tuesday.

Dallas City Council members will be briefed Wednesday on the fake encoder signal that set off 156 sirens. City Manager T.C. Broadnax said someone outside City Hall “intruded in our system.”

Fort Worth — now nearly the same size in square miles — has 147 sirens. The system was bought in 2003 to replace 1950s Civil Defense sirens from the “duck and cover” era, but technology and security have changed a lot since then.

Wells said Fort Worth has added an extra step to secure encoder activations since outsiders trigged sirens in both 2012 and 2014.

Like in Dallas, city sirens went off in the middle of the night: 1:34 a.m. Oct. 18, 2012. Officials finally secured them at 2:03 a.m. but said at the time that they had to put the system into sleep mode, delaying genuine activations but ensuring it couldn’t be triggered from outside.

Wells said officials never found the cause for that incident or a smaller 2014 incident involving six sirens.

“We’re not certain, but it looked like somebody did it,” he said. “We’ve done what we can to secure the system.”

Cities now know that malfunctions call for the same urgent public response as storms. Fort Worth uses Nixle.com text alerts (text any ZIP code to 888777) to message residents who sign up.

As always, officials say sirens are only meant to warn anyone outdoors and that all homes need a weather radio or other system. But sirens definitely get everyone’s attention.

One Colorado city, Longmont, became the latest to simply switch off its siren system last week because it kept going off.

That’s not what we want to hear.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.