Madison County emergency management trying to protect tornado sirens from hackers

Madison County's 130 sirens aren't like the warning systems of old.

Posted: Apr 9, 2019 6:24 PM
Updated: Apr 10, 2019 8:47 AM

When the sirens went off in Marshall County Monday morning, residents knew to take cover. 

Last month, two Texas towns had to listen to blaring tornado sirens for more than an hour in the middle of the night. There was no threat of severe weather. The sirens had been activated by hackers! WAAY 31 decided to investigate if sirens in North Alabama could be hacked.

The people we spoke with are the people in charge of the tornado sirens, and they use the radio signal as a security measure. They said that the siren system in Texas was likely more crude and less advanced than the one they use now.

Madison County's 130 sirens aren't like the warning systems of old. In years' past, they were activated using tones over the air on radios. Eventually, emergency management agencies upgraded to a digital system, making the alarms more accurate and more secure.

"It's sort of like a garage door opener. There's a digital code, a secure code, that gets regenerated so that it's more secure," said emergency management officer, Scott Worsham.

With the old system, anyone could easily trigger the sirens by copying the tones and replaying them. Now, the agency receives a radio frequency and doesn't rely on an internet connection to sound the alarm.

The director of Madison County's EMA says it adds an extra layer of security.

"There are protections in place to the best of our abilities to keep somebody from hacking into our system or you, know, coming over the public safety network," said director of Madison County EMA, Jeff Birdwell.

In fact, Birdwell says the Texas event caused Madison County to re-evaluate its siren system for vulnerabilities. He said the system that was hacked was likely less-advanced than the one used here.

When you hear those sirens being tested every first Wednesday of the month, you should only hear the one for 30 seconds. During a warning, the tone sounds for three minutes. Anything longer than that is a sign to seek more information.

"Just growing up...Sometimes you hear em, sometimes you don't. It's not something you can depend on," said Madison County resident, Jana Capello.

That's actually good advice any time you hear one. The sirens aren't meant to be heard during every warning, in every location. Their purpose is best-served outdoors, to alert people of inclement weather if they're away from their phones and televisions.

So far, Madison County EMA hasn't experienced any hacking attempts. That's good news, because any tampering against a public warning system is more than vandalism. Any would-be hackers are subject to arrest and prosecution.

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