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Tornado warnings explained; new 911 program coming to Boro

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Posted: August 27, 2008 6:02 p.m.
Updated: September 11, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Tornado warnings explained; new 911 program coming to Boro

Ted Wynn


    A tornado warning is issued for the area and officials urge citizens to  take cover.  A red-lettered warning appears on the bottom left corner of the television screen as local stations announce a tornado warning. Weather radios sound an alert. Does this mean there is definitely a tornado on  the ground?
    No, said National Weather Service meteorologist Douglas Berry. But it does mean  there is a very good chance one could touch down.
    Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn said he received a number of calls from concerned citizens last week after there were three tornado warnings in one day, but no twisters  touched down. There isn't a flaw in the system, he said, but weather forecasters choose to "err on the side of caution" when it comes to tornadoes.
    "I have gotten a number of calls about last week's weather, specifically related to the number of tornado warnings we received from the weather service last week," Wynn told the Statesboro Herald.  "I think the general public may not understand that the weather service can only confirm that a tornado is on the ground when they receive that information from trained spotters or an eye witness."
    Berry explained that Doppler radar cannot detect a twister on the ground, but instead monitors weather conditions in the air — namely, winds.
    When a tornado warnings is issued, the radar detects "small couplets that would indicate very strong rotations counter-clockwise," he said. "When we see that on the radar, there is a very strong chance that a tornado could be on  the ground."
    Fortunately there were no tornadoes on the  ground in Bulloch County last week, Wynn said, but when there is a chance that one could form quickly, the warnings will be issued so people can be prepared.
    Bulloch County schools took the warnings seriously and students spent most of the day outside classrooms and in the hallways,  which are the safest places in case of a tornado,   Bulloch County Assistant School Superintendent Charles Wilson said last week.
    Although there were no storms spotted on the ground, the tornadoes could form so quickly there would be no time to seek safety if someone waited until they say the twister, Berry said.
    Doppler radars detect "parent circulations" — the wind patterns that precede tornadoes, called mesocyclones, he said. Mesocyclones are "rotating columns of air in an updraft of a thunderstorm."
    When those mesocyclones are spinning overhead, it could be a matter of seconds before a twister reaches down and touches earth, forming a tornado.
    "The stronger (a mesocyclone) is, the better chance it will produce a tornado on the ground," he said.
    Instead of waiting until an eyewitness reports seeing a tornado, in which case a warning would be too late, weather officials declare a tornado warning for areas over which these spiraling winds are forming, he said.
    
Warning sirens, reverse 911 calls
    Wynn said he has also fielded questions from citizens about the lack of tornado warning sirens in Bulloch County.
    "To cover a county as big as Bulloch we would need a great many sirens at tremendous expense, and if you only covered a portion of the population, how would you decide who did not get one?" he said.
    In order to cover the county adequately by siren warnings, there would have to be about 25 sirens, which cost about $17,000 each, he said.
    About 18-20 sirens would suffice but would leave "dead spots" where citizens could not hear them, as the siren's sound only travels about four miles, he said.
    And the warning sirens can't penetrate some homes or vehicles, so  they would not be sufficient warning unless a citizen were outside.
    "We did at one time have (warning sirens) in Brooklet, Portal, Statesboro, and at Georgia Southern University," he said. "These were old except for the one at GSU and expensive to replace. We experimented with remote activation of these with little success."
    Bulloch County did get a grant from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency  a few years ago that did provide over 400 weather radios. County officials "have made those available for schools, factories, businesses, day cares, nursing homes,  and hospitals," he said.
    Weather radios are a valuable addition to any home and Wynn suggested all citizens obtain one. "With the addition of the weather transmitter in Metter, and the fact that the general public can get the same warning we do,  at the same time we do,  through these radios makes better sense than expensive sirens scattered throughout the county," he said.  "We also have two way radios in all schools, buses and first responders which will receive a rebroadcast of any weather warning we receive at 911."
    Another development in the Bulloch County disaster warning system is on the horizon as well, he said.
    Within the next two months, Bulloch County Central 911 will incorporate a new service that will allow a warning message be sent via telephone to citizens within an area where there is potential danger, he said.
    "Reverse 911 is a great product and we're excited about getting it in here," he said.
    Whenever a tornado warning is issued, or should  there be an escaped convict in an area or another similarly dangerous situation, 911 operators will be able to dispatch warnings by phone to citizens, which will reach more people in a more efficient method than sirens, Wynn said.
    The cost of the reverse 911 system was offset by reductions in other areas of billing by the telephone companies to the county, and the new service will not cost citizens, he said.
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