By Jeff Noble / staff writer
Getting the word out about severe weather and other disasters has come a long way from the Cold War era of the 1950s and early 1960s.
The old CONELRAD system used on radio has evolved into the highly-advanced Emergency Alert System, which is used today in the Tri-County region and across the nation.
Technology has made quantum leaps forward in helping to get the word out about warnings. As a result, there are more options to use for that purpose.
Tony Edwards of the National Weather Service office in Jackson noted those options are used by them every day, and are available for southeastern Kentucky.
“Weather information on your smart phone or web device? There’s an ‘app’ for that. We have a mobile application, or ‘app’ that can be used for smart phones and web-enabled devices, like your computer, an iPad, or an iPod. You can add it to your home screen, or bookmark your cell phone’s browser, and you’ll have weather on the go,” he said.
Edwards added those interested in learning more about the app can go to www.mobile.weather.gov for more information.
Wireless Emergency Alerts, or WEA’s, are another way to reach more people when they’re in harm’s way. It was rolled out almost a year ago by the Weather Service, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Administration) the Federal Communications Commission and the wireless phone industry as a way to carry certain Weather Service warnings — including tornado warnings and flash flood warnings — to cell phones if their customers want the warnings.
Unlike last year’s deadly tornado in East Bernstadt, this spring severe weather season’s been pretty quiet as of Friday. But Edwards said they’ve already had some feedback on WEA’s use.
“We haven’t have a lot of opportunities to use it so far this spring, but we had a guy in Ferguson, over in Pulaski County, who said he got the tornado warning we sent out back on Sunday, March 24th on his cell phone. The phone woke him up, it read the tornado warning to him, and he got up and took cover. We had two minutes warning on that tornado, and moments after he got the warning, the tornado went past his house. We’ve also had some people in the area who were alerted to flash flood warnings by WEA,” he pointed out.
Warnings given out by WEA include warnings for tornadoes, flash flood, blizzards, ice storms and extreme wind. So far, severe thunderstorm warnings are not on the WEA list.
To see if your phone or mobile device can receive the warnings, visit www.ctia.org/wea, or contact your wireless carrier.
Edwards mentioned one big advantage with the wireless emergency options — they’re really good to use if you’re traveling.
“Let’s say you’re traveling to Florida, or the Gulf Coast, or, for an example, Oklahoma City in Oklahoma. You get a tornado warning for Oklahoma County, which Oklahoma City is in. You’re on the Interstate going towards that county and you may have music on a CD playing. But if you have the wireless device capability on your phone or device, it will go off, alerting you,” he explained.
In years past, Weather Service warnings were what was called “county-based,” which gave the weather threat and the county or counties under that threat. Edwards said they’re now “storm-based,” which zeroes in more specifically on the area that’s under the gun for severe weather.
“With a ‘storm-based’ warning, you get the warning, say a tornado warning for the city of Corbin, southern Laurel County, western Knox County and northern Whitley County until 5:30 p.m. You get where it’s been spotted, what it’s doing, where it’s going, what communities are affected, and what to do to take action. It’s more specific,” he said.
And just last month, the Weather Service office in Jackson is using what’s called “Impact Based Warnings,” for southeastern and eastern Kentucky. While the basic function of tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings remain the same, addition enhanced information is provided within the warning and the expected impact on the areas affected.
“They really key on the significant weather event. This allows us not to forecast the intensity of a tornado, but the potential damage of that tornado,” said Edwards.
The program is experimental, and is being used in much of the country between the Rocky Mountains and Appalachian Mountains, including the Tri-County region. It’s done in response to key findings from recent service assessments of tornadoes in 2011, including the EF-5 tornado in Joplin, Missouri on May 22 of that year. That tornado killed at least 158 people, injured around 1,100, and caused up to $2.8 billion in damages.
“In states where they’ve had significant weather events, like Missouri and Kansas, state and county emergency managers and the media really liked it, because they could better gauge the potential impacts and warn people. We’ve had no response to the impact-based warnings in our region, because we haven’t had any significant weather events so far this season,” Edwards stated.
He added NOAA Weather Radio still uses “county-based” warnings. “There’s been some talk of improving that, but that’s way down the food chain. We don’t have a lot of funding available.”
The National Weather Service is a part of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a federal agency under the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The technology has improved, and the options have increased to warn the public and to get feedback. Edwards mentioned the use of social media, including a Facebook page for their office, and doing weather programs for civic groups and organizations, including senior citizens, as ways to keep connected with the people they serve.
As Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the Jackson Weather Service office, Edwards works with local and regional emergency management personnel and first-responders. He gave high marks to those in the Tri-County area for not only being there when it counts, but being able to prepare for the next time disastrous weather comes through.
“Both Knox County and Whitley County personnel are top-notch in their work and preparation. And Laurel County’s in that ‘Tornado Alley’ area of southern and southeastern Kentucky we cover and they’re used to reacting quickly. Their personnel are excellent with what they do,” he said.