The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

May 12, 2013

Ashtabula County is equipped with the latest weather warning technology

By DAVE DELUCA - For the Star Beacon
Star Beacon

— “Red skies at night, sailors’ delight, red skies at morning, sailors take warning.” For hundreds of years before modern forecast technology, this anecdotal rhyme served as a severe weather warning. Back when people spent most of their time outdoors seasonal weather disasters were expected and prepared for.

But few people live that way today. Since the development of the barometer and the telegraph in the 1800s, severe weather prediction has become a science. In the 1900s there were Civil Defense sirens to warn of severe weather. Now, in the information age, most people rely on satellite computer models and media sources to tell them if natural disaster threatens.

Ashtabula County is well versed in these newest developments in weather warning technology. Tim Howson, the Ashtabula County Emergency Management Agency’s Assistant Director, said cell phones, the Internet, smart technology and “IPAWS” were the focus of efforts to keep Ashtabula County in the forefront of weather warning technology. IPAWS is the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.

“Our alert and warning data come from the National Weather Service in Cleveland, but we have the ability to do local warnings,” he said. “We work in tandem using IPAWS. We’ve learned a lot about weather phenomena working with the NWS in Cleveland.”

Howson said Ashtabula County’s EMA can enter weather data via the IPAWS portal to trigger warnings that appear instantly on TV, radio and cell phones throughout the area.

“We use this computer software system to issue warnings in the county,” he said. “The warnings go everywhere.”

Howson said many smart cell phones now have a special icon that sounds an IPAWS alert. These phones with the special icon can be programmed to alert for various situations.

“IPAWS is also used for amber alerts,” Howson said. “During the last amber alert, everyone with the system heard it.”

Howson said another major positive factor about IPAWS is “common protocols.”

“Everyone now has the same system across the country,” Howson said. “There’s finally real standardization. EMAs around the country and the NWS and other entities are all working together sharing the same tools.”

NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Weather Alert Radio is another technology that can save lives. It also keeps Ashtabula County in the forefront of weather warning technology. These radios are available at most electronics stores.

“You can set them up right in your living room or office and never have to worry about sirens malfunctioning,” he said. “They can be programmed for different weather emergencies. Just tell it what kind of warning it’s being programmed for, like storms, tornadoes or high winds, and it will do the rest.”

Howson said the NOAA Weather Alert Radios could even be programmed to warn of severe weather in other locales.

“I programmed mine to take data and warnings from Lake and Geauga counties because we’ll get their weather next,” he said. “It gives me and the EMA an extra jump on things. What’s another good thing about them is that anyone who owns one can do these kinds of things too.”

Warning sirens are still used in Ashtabula County, but not as much as in some other places. Because Ashtabula County is in a national nuclear planning zone there are high tech network sirens serving the areas nearest to Perry Nuclear Plant, like Harpersfield, Geneva, and Geneva-On-The-Lake. Some other sirens in the county are from the days of Civil Defense preparedness, harkening back to the Cold War.

“These older sirens are owned by various fire departments,” Howson said. “They served double duty as fire department public alert and weather warning sirens.”

Howson said there are more modern weather alert sirens owned by Morgan Township, Jefferson Village and Andover Village.

“Most sirens still have the drawback of needing someone to set them off,” he said. “Their effectiveness is limited by this and other factors like whether they can be heard over high winds. This is one of the areas where high tech upgrading increases network preparedness.”

Howson said another important functioning aspect of severe weather awareness and preparedness is independent radio and ham radio operators. Ham radio harkens back to the days of Cold War Civil Defense, but is still considered very useful.

“We support ham and independent radio operators in their efforts,” he said. “The radio operators represent a tried and true method of observation and communication. We still rely on that.”

Howson said Ashtabula County’s Emergency Management Agency blends both older technologies like sirens and radio operators with cutting-edge computer/information technologies to provide the best possible preparedness for severe weather.