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Alert Them at Any Hour

The April/May/June 2012 print issue of PA TIMES published a series of articles on the topic of Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Recovery. The piece below is part  of a Student Symposia from that issue.

Daniel Bowen

It is 3 a.m. on a warm morning in Central Florida. The typical thunderstorms are crossing the state while residents sleep to the sound of thunder and rain drops. The winds are sporadic and the rain is intense. Then, without warning, a small circulating storm cell forms and within moments it becomes a tornado. The mesocyclone starts off small in size, but within minutes has intensified into an EF-3 tornado, which steadily creeps toward a large suburban community that lays peacefully asleep. The path of destruction is comparable to a category 5 hurricane and will have no mercy on the young or weak. The only hope for the safety of these citizens lies within the preparation that was completed by emergency officials. How will residents be alerted to the impending disaster? Will they hear the television or will they be alerted by the weather radio bulletin? Does the city have reverse 9-1-1? Does the city have a warning system designed specifically for tornadoes? The decisions are made and the time for action is here.

The bottom line is tax payers get what they pay for. The goal of saving lives starts with effective and efficient communications.

A variety of alerting systems for severe weather and tornadoes are available. Each system varies in price and effectiveness. After some research, the significance of a local warning system has become apparent. A local warning system as secondary or even a primary alerting system could be the difference between a few injuries and a catastrophic event. Ironically, municipalities throughout Central Florida continue to ignore what appears to be so obvious.

Early notification with a tornado may only be a few minutes, but it may be enough time for people to evacuate from unsafe structures and seek refuge in stronger buildings. So the question is as simple as the answer. How do you alert your target community about an eminent event such as a tornado? The most common alerting systems, excluding local news, are the National Emergency Alert system and the NOAA weather radio. A third system, that may be common in some states, is a tornado alert system.

The National Emergency Alert system, formally the Emergency Broadcasting System, is an alert and warning system that can be activated by virtually all levels of government. The activation of this system is received over both television and radio platforms. The broadcast can be issued in languages other than English, which is a positive in virtually all areas. The most frequent user is the NOAA National Weather Service. The system is tested routinely to ensure effectiveness and familiarize the public with the system in case an actual activation is done. The system is composed of three elements: 9-1-1 phone lines, the emergency activation system, and the media platforms. The system is a very effective way to communicate with virtually millions of people during normal business hours. However, the effectiveness of the system at 3 a.m. when a tornado is steaming toward a sleeping community is questionable. The system is basically dead when its target audience doesn’t have their communication devices on. So once again, how are we going to notify the residents?

The NOAA weather radio (NWR) is another effective communication device for alerting the public of a threat of tornadoes. The NWR is a nationwide network of radio stations that broadcast continuous weather information from the National Weather Office. The NWR broadcasts official weather service watches, warnings, forecasts and other hazard information. The NWR has the authority from the FCC to broadcast emergency alert information for other types of events such as natural events, environmental incidents and public safety issues. The NWR broadcasts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The NWR covers all 50 states and adjoining land masses and waterways. The NWR is cost effective and could be purchased for every household in a given area. At prices as low as $18 per unit, this could be an effective communication device for emergency preparedness. However, the issue now becomes reliability, maintenance and replacement of these units. Who will replace the batteries, broken units or defective units? Constructed primarily of plastic, these radios are not very durable units for a family household. The NWR also issues continuous weather alerts. People often become irritated and or desensitized to the warnings, and within months of purchase, most of the radios would either be turned off or completely disconnected from all power sources. So again, how are we going to alert the residents?

A third solution for alerting a community is an alert warning system. These systems vary in complexity, ranging from basic sirens to automated messages. The basic components of these systems are remote sirens and the activation device. An example of this system is the city of Oviedo, FL, which covers 16 square miles with approximately 40,000 residents. The sirens in Oviedo are strategically located throughout the city, and each siren covers approximately 1 square mile while delivering a warning signal at 130 decibels. The city has 10 sirens that emit a 3 minute warning when activated. The system is activated at the county’s dispatch center by remote control and can be activated by the communications center or at the discretion of the fire chief, who also serves as the emergency director. The sirens use batteries so no electric source is needed. The system requires minimal maintenance, which costs less than $1,500 annually with each siren station costing approximately $18,000 each. At the current rate, the city would have spent approximately $180,000 total. The city has 12,000 residential units which equates to an average cost of $15 per household. This would have been a one-time fee, followed by the $1,500 annual maintenance, which would be 0.125 cents per household annually. Finally, the sirens are activated remotely each month for testing, and the remote activation component is included in each station.

It is obvious that the National Alerting System is going to be the primary alerting system, but what are cities going to use as their back up if the system does not work or does not reach every citizen? The commercial alerting system has a total price of $180,000 initially and an annual maintenance fee of $1,500 for a city similar to Oviedo. The NWR radios would cost a city like Oviedo approximately $216,000 for 12,000 units. Annual maintenance would vary based on replacement of units and batteries. While the NWR is an effective tool, it lacks in dependability. The commercial alerting system does not need personal monitoring or continuous service. The system is always active and can be utilized for virtually any emergency event. The activation of the alert system would trigger residents to seek additional information within protected structures. The most impressive factor is the cost of the commercial system over the NWR system.

The bottom line is tax payers get what they pay for. The goal of saving lives starts with effective and efficient communications. Our goal is to alert all residents of danger and have them initiate self-protection procedures when possible. Residents stand a much better chance if they are alerted at all hours of the day. The benefits of a tornado alerting system appear to far outweigh any downfalls. The installation of a tornado alerting system in any community will increase the effective communications sought by emergency directors during such chaotic moments.

Daniel Bowen is a graduate student in the Department of Emergency Management at Jacksonville State University and a lieutenant/paramedic with the Deltona Fire Department. Email: [email protected]

Constructive comments and responses to the papers are encouraged and can be submitted directly to the scholar at their email address listed below each article, or by clicking on Post A Comment below each article.

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