Twister! Not a movie. Not a game.
As threatening weather descended upon Finney County, Kan., in 1995, County Emergency Management Coordinator Dave Jones dispatched spotters to relay field reports on worsening conditions. “Three spotters were calling in reports about wind velocity and prevailing conditions,” Jones says. “One reported 45 mile-per-hour winds from one direction, and his teammate reported the same wind speed from the opposite direction. The one in the middle reported dead calm and said he was looking up into a doughnut.”
Whether they come as brief downbursts or as raging clouds spinning at hundreds of miles per hour, tornadoes are destructive, often sudden and always dangerous. People who have witnessed them know first-hand the eerie calm before the storm; the ascending assault of lightning and hail; and the winds that rip toward earth with the sound of a freight train and the power of nothing else known in nature.
Few know the experience better than the residents of Tornado Alley, the column of states encompassing Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. There, dry arctic air meets the warm moisture of the Gulf Stream and explodes over the plains with frightening regularity. In Kansas alone, there are 48 tornadoes every year; squeezed into a “tornado season” that lasts from April through September, that number averages out to eight twisters per month.
Surprisingly, of the more than 120 tornado-related deaths in the United States last year, only two occurred in Tornado Alley. That may be partially attributed to the region’s emergency management efforts, which combine response planning, human resources, technology and public education to enable communities to protect lives that are otherwise helplessly placed in harm’s way.
Establishing a plan “I’m just amazed that people really don’t know what emergency management is,” says Jon Tilley, emergency management director for Claremore and Rogers County, Okla. “You say ‘FEMA,’ and they say, ‘Oh, yeah.’ But they don’t understand the local part of it — that local efforts make it work.” That local effort begins with a uniform response plan, he says.
Prior to 1997, Tilley’s response plan, like that of every other community in Oklahoma, was exclusive. “Each community had a plan, and we had enough complaints from city and county directors that the state came out with a plan that is more or less generic,” he explains. “Now, every city and county in Oklahoma has it.”
Covering operations hierarchy and including law enforcement, fire and rescue, maintenance, communication, health and medical resources, and damage assessment, the plan has to be tailored to some degree (e.g., to include a mayor instead of a commissioner or a maintenance foreman instead of a public works director), but it remains essentially the same across the state. “A lot of times, we assist other counties, and we know their protocol,” Tilley says. “We all know how the plan works, so [the uniformity] really does help.”
Applied to tornadoes, the plan begins with an eye on the sky. “My operations manager and I both monitor the weather,” Tilley explains. “We have two types of radar, or, sometimes [when I’m at home], I’ll get a call from the sheriff or the National Weather Service that says the area is under a severe thunderstorm warning.”
“As the storm gets closer, we come to the emergency operations center (EOC), and, if it’s a tornadic storm, I’ll page my staff (including three communications officers and a secretary),” he continues. “As the storm gets more violent, I page the spotters and send them to a spot to wait. At the same time, we get on our commercial or county radio and call the small towns around the area and notify their fire departments. We also notify our electric companies.”
If a tornado touches down, Tilley’s job shifts into that of a coordinator. “You’re sort of a Radar O’Reilly,” he says. “I’ll start notifying outside resources such as the sheriff and medical [personnel] to respond. We make sure that the incident commander gets what he needs and that everything runs smoothly. We make sure there’s coordination with all agencies so that the right hand knows what the left hand’s doing.”
In Sedgwick County, Kan., the progression is similar. “We’ve got people in the field, and we’re talking to the National Weather Service,” says John Coslett, the county’s emergency management director. “If a tornado is imminent, we activate our EOC to a Level 2, which brings in all emergency services.”
Sedgwick County’s resources include city (Wichita) and county law enforcement, fire departments and public works departments; a county-wide ambulance service; and the county coroner/medical examiner. Additionally, the EOC provides work stations for the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the local school district, which supplies shelter space in the event of a storm.
Coslett notes that local attention to tornado response and coordination came after a 1991 tornado that caused 13 deaths in a nearby community. “We had about three different areas where we had losses in our county, but [most of] the losses of life were in the next county,” he says. “We were fortunate. It had been years since anything had happened around here. We managed to get through it in a relatively good manner, but we got together with all the emergency services and support people and figured out how we wanted to run this thing in the future.”
As a result, Sedgwick County updated its EOC and invested in training with the Emergency Management Institute, Emittsburg, Md. Seventy-eight government and non-government personnel attended the three-day workshop in March 1993. “It’s site-specific,” Coslett explains. “The institute sends somebody into your community, and they spend a week or so driving the community and looking at everything, and they design an exercise based on your community.”
For the first two days of the workshop, participants talked about the problems they faced under the existing emergency management program and workedon building solutions. “The big benefit is that you have [everyone involved in the program] sitting in one room and hearing exactly the same thing,” Coslett says.
The final day, attendees took part in a mock emergency exercise. “It was a tremendous learning experience,” Coslett notes. “You realize that you have to work together when something’s going on and that there’s plenty of stuff to be done for everybody. You try to get rid of the turf battle type stuff.”
Enlisting volunteers For almost every emergency management department, the core staff is small — perhaps a director and assistant director — and it is augmented by support services and volunteers. Reserve firefighters are an essential part of the team, as are amateur radio operators. In terms of drama, the ham radio operator has one of the most intense roles in tornado response. As a storm approaches, teams of spotters are sent out to provide “ground truth information” or to confirm what is showing up on weather radars.
“We have two volunteer radio groups that work with us,” Coslett says. “So, if the National Weather Service calls and says they need spotters in the field, we notify the heads of the groups, and they send people to the area(s) that the weather service would like them to look at.”
Although they work under dangerous conditions, spotters are not storm chasers, Finney County’s Jones notes. “The movie ‘Twister’ distorted the facts to the point of being dangerous,” he says. “Obviously, we don’t want folks trying to chase storms.” (Nevertheless, the middle United States has an established industry of private storm-chasing tours.)
“The spotters are put in key positions that we look at through radar,” Tilley adds. “We might say, ‘You’re going to be receiving hail. We need to know how big the hail is, and we want to know wind speed or wind gusts.'” That information is then relayed to the EOC via radio.
He is quick to note that weather spotters for Claremore and Rogers County attend an annual training session provided by the National Weather Service. “They are required to go to this school, or they do not spot for us that year,” he says.
Incorporating technology While the spotter’s work hints at the necessity for human and technological interaction during a tornado, preparedness and warning drive the point home. Radar systems, warning sirens, radio and television all are part of the arsenal for saving lives.
“If there’s any kind of severe weather in the area, we’re monitoring it constantly,” Coslett says. “We have a direct line to the National Weather Service, and we have live radar from one of the television stations here.” Sedgwick County’s EOC also receives radar reports from the Emergency Manager’s Weather Information Network and the Data Transmission Network.
Jones and Tilley report similar capabilities in their EOCs. “We’ve got information from six or seven types of weather information systems before anybody’s even out in the field,” Tilley notes.
As radar data is confirmed and tornado warnings are issued, residents are notified via local radio and television stations. However, many communities have taken severe weather warning a step further by installing sirens.
“Sirens are made to be outdoor warning signals,” Coslett says. “They’re not made to be heard in your living room while you’re watching television. The main thing is that, when the sirens go off, people should get to a radio or television and find out what’s going on and where to go from there.”
To ensure that the area’s sirens work properly, Coslett’s staff tests them every Monday at noon. “After we sound them, we call the residences or businesses located next to the sirens and check whether they are sounding/operating properly,” he explains.
Tilley notes that, while sirens can be helpful warning tools, they have limited reach. “Each town is more or less responsible for its own warning system, and that leaves the rural area without it. So we’ve picked up a repeater and put our emergency management frequency on it, and that allows us to notify people over the radio and through their scanners at home. Also, if an area’s got enough time to be warned, we’ll have the sheriff’s department go through those areas with their sirens.”
Preparing the public Although emergency managers are charged with the task of doing everything they can to notify residents of impending danger, residents have the responsibility of heeding the warning, Jones says. “People in this part of the country are well-conditioned to tornadoes,” he notes. “We ask them to take warnings seriously.”
To ensure preparedness for and safety during a tornado, emergency managers have added public education to their list of duties. “We give public education programs on where people should shelter,” Jones says, adding that discussions about tornadoes should reach beyond the fear of funnel clouds. “Lightning and floods kill more than tornadoes. Tornadoes tend to receive press.”
“We go to schools, businesses, governments and talk to them about safety,” Coslett says. “We may look the building over and make recommendations as to what would most likely be the safest part of the building.”
“We talk about the difference between a tornado watch (conditions are conducive to the formation of a tornado) and a tornado warning (a tornado has been spotted),” Tilley notes. “We talk about what to do if you have a lot of lightning. Or we even go into nursing homes and tell them about water shortages and storing water.” His department also encourages residents to purchase flood and fire insurance.
In addition to safety seminars, public education may encompass written materials and media coverage. Coslett notes that Sedgwick County’s brochures are printed in English, Spanish and Vietnamese to accommodate the area’s diverse population. Additionally, he notes, local newspapers and television stations pick up educational events throughout the year.
Honing the response Even with an established plan, trained volunteers, technology and public education, the tornado response plan is only as good as the person in charge, Tilley notes. “A lot of plans are put up on the shelf and never looked at again,” he says. “I could tell you war stories.”
To know the plan and ensure its usefulness, the emergency manager must test it on a regular basis. “I do a city drill and a county drill annually,” Tilley says. “I call a meeting with [all the emergency support services], and we discuss the parts of the plan that they want to test.
“The police department may say, ‘We’ve got this new system, and we’d like to check it out’ or ‘I’ve got a new dispatcher, and I’d like to see how he’s going to work under pressure.’ I get their input, and then I write the drill. “We’re not out there to say, ‘Oh, you did it wrong,’ Tilley adds. “We’re out there to learn and find out how we can better [our response].”
The very essence of tornadoes — randomness and destruction — dictates that tornado response will never become second nature to emergency managers. However, honing and practicing the plan can bring a sense of predictability to a situation in which chaos is sometimes the only thing remaining intact.
As testimony from Tornado Alley illustrates, a variety of resources can assist in tornado preparedness and reaction. Effectively coordinated, they can reduce losses and save lives when nature’s fury is unleashed.
Community leaders and emergency officials charged with the safety and well-being of their citizens now have a new resource to help them prepare for local disasters. The Comprehensive Disaster Preparedness and Recovery Education Module, prepared by the University of Florida, Gainesville, is based on years of disaster research and interviews with the nation’s top experts in the field.
The module includes the “1998 Disaster Handbook,” a related CD-ROM and the “Are You Ready?” video based on the Disaster Preparedness Satellite Videoconference. More than 1,000 pages of reference material cover the do’s and don’ts of disaster response. Practical information applies to every region of the country, with chapters devoted to hurricanes, floods, hazardous materials, fires, terrorism, extreme heat, extreme cold, earthquakes and ot her natural or man-made crises.
The module is a joint effort of the university’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and the Florida Cooperative Extension Service. It is available for $100, plus shipping and handling, from the Publications Distribution Center, P.O. Box 110011, Gainesville FL 32611-0011; telephone (800) 226-1764. The handbook may be viewed at http://disaster.ifas. ufl.edu.
In 1998, after being deluged by El Nino floods and singed by statewide forest fires, Florida municipalities were battered by one of the most active hurricane seasons on record. Tropical Storm Mitch drenched South Florida (before moving on to devastate Central America) just weeks after Hurricane Georges had unleashed its fury on Florida and the Gulf Coast.
As of mid-November, all 67 Florida counties had been declared eligible for some form of federal disaster aid in 1998. Once a county becomes eligible for assistance, affected residents can begin applying to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for relief funds and aid. It usually is a long, complicated process that generates mountains of paperwork.
This year, residents in Alachua County in north-central Florida and Monroe County, which covers the Florida Keys, learned first-hand how technology reduced FEMA’s response times and increased its efficiency in serving residents stricken by disaster. A telephone registration system used by FEMA allowed citizens of the two counties to begin the recovery process quickly.
Called Teleregistration, the system uses software from HTE, Lake Mary, Fla., to process requests for aid over the telephone. That eliminates trips to disaster management offices and the countless forms residents previously had to fill out when applying for aid. County officials and local FEMA representatives are responsible for promoting the new system in stricken areas. The telephone number is dispersed throughout the designated counties through public service announcements, and affected citizens are urged to call. (The average call requires only 10 minutes, although representatives can spend as long as necessary helping applicants fully understand their eligibility.)
After the initial call is placed, a FEMA representative makes an appointment with the resident to inspect his or her damage. The representative then verifies ownership, estimates liability and further explains the aid process.
If the applicant is eligible for aid, a check for interim housing expenses or emergency repairs is issued within seven to 10 days of the inspection. At that time, the applicant receives further information on long-term recovery aid and begins the process of applying for further assistance.
“The best part of the whole system is that there is a real person on the phone who has the ability to knowledgeably explain the registrant’s options and constraints,” says Steve Abrams, Emergency Services Director for Alachua County.
“The telephone registration program has been a tremendous asset to our people,” says Norm Leggett, director of communications for Monroe County.
In addition to the convenience offered by the system, Leggett cites the toll-free number as a major benefit to families who have lost everything. He also says that citizens who were housed in shelters used pay phones to call FEMA and were relieved that they did not have to worry about long distance charges on top of their losses.
“The phone registration system significantly improves a community’s ability to get back on its feet and shorten the time in which families can begin rebuilding their lives,” Abrams says.
Nestled in the Willamette Valley about 100 miles south of Portland, Springfield, Ore., was a typical American city of 51,000 people until May 21, 1998. That was the day 15-year-old Kip Kinkel walked calmly into a crowded high school cafeteria and opened fire on his fellow students.
Kinkel’s shooting spree left two dead and 22 wounded. It also taught city and county officials that disasters do not necessarily involve floods, earthquakes or storms. The gunfire was over in seconds. The media barrage that lasted for several days afterward demanded an intensive cooperative effort on the part of several local agencies. Almost immediately, the media descended on Springfield. Television stations, newspapers and news magazines all needed stories. Journalists asked about victims, heroes, families, students, friends and teachers. They asked about autopsy reports, search warrants, suicide watches, grand jury matters and cameras in the courtroom.
The blizzard of phone calls was endless. During the aftermath, hospitals fielded 400 to 500 media calls each. More than 5,000 calls came into the media information center at city hall. It became clear that Springfield and Lane County would have to devise a plan to deal with the onslaught.
Quickly, a team of city, county and school officials put together a six-part strategy: 1. Assemble a crisis PIO team. By 10 a.m., within two hours of the shooting, officials recognized that no one entity or person could handle the anticipated media crush. With no formal mutual aid agreement, communications professionals from the school district, hospitals and the city and county governments formed a public information team. A Portland-area fire department official volunteered along with four other local public information specialists. All told, 13 PIOs were on the job.
The team met throughout the weeks that followed the shooting. Vacation plans for the Memorial Day weekend were canceled. Members remained in touch via e-mail, faxes and telephone calls.
2. Analyze the situation. When a crisis hits, many groups tend to over-analyze the situation before taking action. In a crisis environment, however, there is no time for lengthy meetings or consensus development by large communities.
The team knew that a slow response — or no response — to the media might be viewed and reported as apparent guilt, a cover-up, incompetence or lack of responsibility. It also knew the media would get information by whatever means were available. Team members realized that communicating quickly, responsibly and honestly would allow reporters to develop accurate and factual stories.
The team’s overall goals were to maintain credibility and provide timely, accurate information about the event. Its objectives: * Maintain credibility with officials by keeping them informed; * Maintain credibility with the media by being responsive at the information center, at the scenes and on the telephones; * Make the media part of the crisis response by calling on reporters to release public service information such as hotline numbers, victim status reports and community events; * Identify with the victims and communicate what was being done to help them;
* Keep the focus of blame away from officials and organizations; and * Let the world know the community was dealing with a very difficult situation and handling it responsibly.
Priority was determined for those who had to be notified when specific information became available, and spokespeople were selected. The team knew its information had to be consistent. Controlled information flow was key.
Spokespeople were selected based on their areas of expertise. For example, the hospital spokesperson dealt with casualties and patient status, the police spokesperson with the criminal investigation, and the school spokesperson with school affairs.
Since reporters like to talk to people in charge, the team chose as its spokespeople the mayor, police chief, sheriff, district attorney, school superintendent, fire/EMS chief and agency PIOs. Lastly, the team knew it had to be keenly aware of Oregon law regarding criminal investigations, court procedures and bar-press-broadcaster guidelines.
3. Set up a media information center. The city manager’s office in Springfield was chosen as the site of the media information center. The nearby city council chambers served as the site of daily news briefings thatwere carried live by television stations.
Within an hour of the shooting, a sin gle telephone number was released. To handle the non-stop calls, the phone company brought in extra trunk lines. Phones were answered for the first 36 hours straight, then daily from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Additionally, a media post with fax machines, telephones and modem lines was established at a nearby vacant building.
4. Communicate as quickly as possible. An initial response must be instantaneous, even if it is only a prepared statement acknowledging that something has happened and indicating when a more formal statement will be made. In Springfield, the initial announcement, made minutes after the shooting, was, “We confirm a shooting has happened. There are many injuries. We’re working on it. We will keep you informed.” Around noon, a more formal response was made, and by late afternoon, a second briefing with Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and State School Superintendent Norma Paulus was held.
5. Communicate regularly on the status of the crisis. For the first four days, the team held two daily briefings. It also issued multiple statements about the changing status of the crisis. Releases were consolidated to include information not only from public agencies, but from the bus district, churches, the Red Cross, funeral homes, businesses and counseling agencies.
Additionally, reporters were provided daily with an updated contact list of names and telephone and pager numbers. Each name was categorized into subject areas such as criminal charges, prosecution, criminal investigations, patient status and community concerns.
6. Make the media a partner. Cooperation is the key. Reporters are there to get the story, and they will do that with or without cooperation. Helping the media ensures the story is not based on misinformation, which could ultimately damage the reputation and credibility of the community.
The team made story suggestions and announced photo opportunities, but realized that it was not appropriate to censor the media or determine how it presented its information. In exchange, the team merely wanted accurate and balanced coverage. At any given moment, the team was able to say, “This is what we know. This is what we don’t know.” The team attempted to treat everyone — from (ABC News anchor) Peter Jennings to the local TV reporter — the same. At times, it even bent over backward to assist the local media, reasoning that, once the national media were gone, the local stations and papers still would be around. Mistakes were made. Scheduled live television interviews did not happen because of crossed signals or interviewee burnout. Reporters were upset when affidavits and search warrants were sealed after one newspaper already had an exclusive. Information leaks did not please the district attorney’s office. And two reporters angered local hospital officials by sneaking into the facility dressed as doctors.
The team made suggestions for those dealing with future crises: * Monitor the news to find out who is writing or saying what. Because most communications people are overwhelmed with media requests, it may be necessary to find a volunteer to handle that chore. * Control all rumors. In Springfield, big rumors were caught and cleared up, and smaller ones were largely ignored. * Sleep. Members of the team worked 20-hour days, and that led to some grumpiness. Even in a tragedy, a sense of humor can help. * Expect the unexpected. Springfield discovered that disaster is not just something experienced by other cities. It can happen anywhere. And, as the city learned, a disaster response team and policy can be invaluable in lessening the resulting impact.
Mike Moskovitz is the public information officer for Lane County, Ore.