Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

May 12, 2013

Localities implement variety of warning systems

By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

PRINCETON — When weather fronts with the potential for bringing flash flooding, snowstorms or other inclement weather are approaching the region, forecasters and emergency service agencies have a variety of ways to alert the public.

In Mercer County, the local office of emergency services uses local media like the Bluefield Daily Telegraph’s email and Twitter alerts to inform the public, said Director Tim Farley. The alerts are based on forecasts from the National Weather Service in Blacksburg, Va. There is also work underway with the federal government to use social media as a conduit for sending email alerts.

“When inclement weather is coming in and we see that we’re going to be having flooding or heavy snowfall, we try to get the word out as quickly as possible,” Farley said.

Some districts still use alert systems that don’t rely on the Internet or the media. In Richlands, Va., the town maintains a siren system to warn residents when dangers such as flash floods are approaching.

“We’ve got multiple sirens in multiple locations,” Town Manager Tim Taylor said. “We have them in Doran and Cedar Bluff, too, especially for flooding. Our communities are susceptible to flash flooding. Basically, it’s an alert system for natural events, especially the quick ones that might come up on us.”

Other media such as Internet alerts are good, but the siren system has been effective in Richlands, Taylor said. It is particularly effective during the late-night and early morning hours when residents may not be monitoring the electronic media.

“It’s pretty loud, especially when it occurs at night,” he said of the sirens. “It will wake you up and you will hear it.”

Chief Frank Dorton of the Richlands Police Department said the National Weather Service in Blacksburg, Va., alerts the town when flash flood warnings are posted. Town alerts are available on Facebook, but not everyone will see those immediately.

“If you’re not looking at Facebook, you’re not going to see it,” Dorton said.

However, people are likely to hear the warning sirens, he added.

Warnings about inclement weather are compiled by monitoring current weather conditions and forecast models, said meteorologist Patrick Wilson of the National Weather Service in Blacksburg,Va. Decisions on whether to issue a weather watch or warning depends on whether forecasters see potential hazards to life or property. The first level is a weather watch.

“A watch simply means we see the potential for the threat to occur,” Wilson said.

The weather service uses radar and satellites to monitor conditions, but forecasters also rely on local weather spotters and law enforcement agencies to learn more about local conditions. Radar does not show whether rain is actually falling, he said. People can also post messages on Facebook and Twitter about the local weather conditions they are seeing; links to both social media services are on the National Weather Service’s website.

“People are welcomed to provide us with support. We can see only so much without actually being there,” Wilson said.

When a weather warning is issued, forecasters have determined that problems such as flooding or heavy snow are occurring or about to occur, he said.

One source providing updates on weather watches and warnings is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) radio, Wilson stated. It alerts listeners to potential storms, and it provides specific information.

Weather radios are available in most retail stores and on the Internet, Wilson said. He would not suggest specific brands, but there are portable models hikers and hunters can use if they are in areas where regular alerts are hard to get.

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com.