BROOKVILLE — Jefferson County Director of Emergency Services Tracy Zents shared how protocols and technology have changed when it comes to emergency response since the flood 25 years ago.
“A lot has changed since the July 19, 1996, flood. Today, weather forecasts and radar imaging at the National Weather Service level have improved,” Zents said.
He noted that while most of the area forecasts and alerts come from the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh, the area is at the far end of their radar imaging. He explained that the radar in Pittsburgh starts at a very low grade, almost parallel sending the beam out. When the beam hits its intended target, it generates the beam back through energy signifying what is happening. The farther away from Pittsburgh the location is, the harder it is to get an accurate forecast because of the curve of the Earth. In Pittsburgh it might be 100 feet off the ground, and by the time it gets here, it could be one to two miles off the ground.
“This is something that a lot of people don’t understand how this works, thus sometimes giving inaccurate forecasts, at no fault of the forecasters. Sometimes Punxsy Phil has a better view of things,” Zents said.
He said the State College office can sometimes pick up imagery here and by working with both offices can get alerts out quicker, especially during flash flood situations.
“While the flood of ‘96 was not what you would consider ‘flash flooding’ as it rained all night long to create the flooding that occurred, this update from the National Weather Service can help us get the word out quicker so people can prepare,” Zents said.
The EMS Department has also added a Storm Ready Plan, which was formed to cover all aspects of severe weather procedures for Emergency Management Operations and provide protocols for 911 staff on what to do in such a case. This includes broadcasts of watches and warnings for severe weather, activation of weather sirens for communities that have them, as well as individual paging of community fire departments alerting them to impending weather.
“Our plan has been approved by the National Weather Service and we are recognized as a Storm Ready County,” Zents said.
Another important feature that has been added, he said, is the different cell phone apps with current radar imagery as well as keeping the communities updated on weather forecasts.
“‘WAN’ for Wireless Alert Network can ‘ping’ cell phone users and send them a warning, mostly for tornados, within our area. For example, if there is an alert for the Brockway area for a tornado warning, the weather service can draw a polygon around the danger area and cell phones in that area are made aware of the impending danger,” Zents said. If there is an alert for the entire county, it will include all the cell phones in the county.
“One thing people must understand is they may get these automatically, however, some cell phone carriers give customers an option to subscribe or not. So if this is something people want, they may need to sign up or change settings on their phones to get them,” Zents said.
The Jefferson County Emergency Services Facebook page also automatically sends watches and warnings to everyone who likes the page so they see it as soon as the NWS sends it out. Zents said a great feature with this is if someone doesn’t look at Facebook and then sees a severe weather warning alert, it will tell the user if the alert has expired or not.
He said the county always tries to include additional weather statements or imaging to let the people know, as well as email pushes to all county staff keeping them safe throughout the county.
“We are recognized by the National Weather Service as a Weather Ready Nation Ambassador for our service in providing weather training, exercises and broadcasting of weather watches and warnings,” Zents said
More communities are equipping themselves with weather sirens, he noted, which is mostly for sounding tornado warnings. These can be for other related incidents, but people need to have some type of other warning apps or devices to let them know exactly what is happening, such as a NOAA Weather Radio.
The county also offers a Skywarn Weather Training once a year to train the lay person to understand weather patterns, be able to read the clouds and relay what is happening in a community to help trigger a watch or warning in a quicker manner.