Tornado sirens and television alerts have lost their appeal. Emergency planners in the Augusta area are urging residents to rely more on smartphones and other personal mobile devices to track severe weather.
High-tech warning systems that send alerts to landline customers and select cellphone users are seen as the future of weather alarms for a region that saw two tornadoes in March.
Officials say the technology – available in Richmond, Columbia, Aiken, Burke, McDuffie and McCormick counties and coming soon to Lincoln County – would dramatically improve response time by using satellite signals to send e-mails, text messages and voice mails when potentially deadly storms loom.
The challenge is getting everyone enrolled in call databases.
“We must embrace new technology,” said Mie Lucas, the disaster preparedness coordinator for Richmond County, which has only 2,000 cellphone users registered in its alert system. “It’s the best way to get out information and make people aware of severe weather.”
Older systems, such as warning sirens, are increasingly unreliable, authorities in area counties say. They are difficult to hear inside buildings, and many people have become desensitized to their false alarms over the years.
There are no sirens in Richmond County, but there is an administrative office building in Augusta on Fourth Street that tracks severe weather around the clock, sending e-mails, text messages and voice recordings to all landline subscribers. About 2,000 residents have registered their cellphone numbers at augustaga.gov to receive suggestions on when and where they should take cover.
Similar measures are used in Columbia County, which as the first “StormReady” community in Georgia – an honor bestowed by the National Weather Service – has become an emergency management model across the state and region.
Besides two tornado sirens in Grovetown and a landline notification program, Columbia County Emergency Management Director Pam Tucker said residents and businesses have many ways to get information, including:
• An integrated warning system that pushes out presidential, National Weather Service and Amber alerts to all smartphones registered at columbiacountyga.gov
• A privately owned radio station managed in part by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at schools and public facilities for all civil emergencies, including chemical spills and dam failure
• A massive database with thousands of addresses and Facebook sites for individuals, hospitals, businesses and schools, some of which are outside of Columbia County
Tucker said the county is working to put up eight electronic billboards for traffic alerts, tornado warnings and other emergencies.
Casey Broom, the emergency services director in Lincoln County, has not had quite the same success as Tucker.
However, he has made up ground in matching the efforts of his rural counterparts in Burke, McDuffie, Aiken and McCormick counties, which have enrolled thousands in CodeRED, a national high-speed communications network that automatically sends weather advisories, missing-child alerts and evacuation notices to subscribers’ phones.
Broom said Lincoln County has received a $30,000 grant from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and is negotiating a three-year, $14,250 contract with a third-party provider to have a mass notification system in place for residents and businesses.
Broom hopes to have the network up and running in the next few weeks and plans to use the remaining $15,750 in state grant money to integrate the network into a computer-aided dispatch system at the Lincoln County 911 Center.
“Right now, all emergency services – police, fire and rescue – are all housed in one location and depend on one siren in Lincolnton, radios from the National Weather Service and local media to get out warning and alerts,” Broom said. “This new system will give us a broader reach, enabling us to use (mapping technology) to draw a circle around a specific coverage area and send alerts and advisories to all our subscribers.”
Though the digital phone networks cover a large area, promoting them to the wide boundaries of rural counties has presented challenges.
In Richmond County, Lucas said emergency management has inserted fliers in water bills and had its community response team, citizen core group and fire chief talk to training classes, civic groups and neighborhood watch meetings to promote the software.
In Aiken County, Emergency Management Coordinator David Ruth has held seminars, church meetings and luncheons on CodeRED.
Ruth said his message is simple when persuading people to sign up for the program at aikencountysc.gov.
“Five minutes could save your life,” he said.