Harvard seeks to decommission tornado siren system after multiple hacks

Over the past six weeks, Harvard’s tornado early warning system has been compromised multiple times by an unknown hacker.

Harvard Police Chief Mark Krause said the unauthorized activations have occurred four times, sometimes in the early hours of the morning. The first time an early morning siren went off, a total of 44 calls were made to police dispatch and eight 911 calls were made.

With the integrity of weather alerts compromised and a top-to-bottom upgrade generously estimated to cost six figures, the city of Harvard will be seeking to decommission the estimated 80-year-old system, according to a news release from the city sent Tuesday.

The last significant upgrade to Harvard’s alert system was in 2015 to switch from T1 lines to radio signals. This upgrade significantly reduced operating costs and permitted remote activation from the city’s dispatch center, NERCOM, the release said.

However, from the comments received so far about the city’s decision to decommission, Krause said, there appears to be some misunderstanding about the function and intent of the weather system.

Some people assume sirens are meant to be heard indoors instead of notifying people outdoors to seek shelter, while others assume sirens are triggered by a computer rather than a person, Krause said.

He added that there seems to be an over-reliance on the system, and the city has been trying to educate people.

The release said the hackings were not isolated incidents and are occurring across the country.

David Christensen, director of the McHenry County Emergency Management Agency, said he doesn’t recall decommissioning procedures being performed in McHenry County but it happened once when he worked in Lake County.

Christensen and the city recommended residents buy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radios, which can be bought for $20 to $30 at any hardware or home improvement store.

Residents also are encouraged to seek verified smartphone applications that could provide NOAA or National Weather Service notifications.

Krause said these modern weather-spotting services can provide a more advanced notification than old sirens.

“The feeling of the city is that perhaps this technology is a remnant of the past,” Krause said.