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May 11, 2013

Are we ready? You can keep informed of looming emergencies

NEW CASTLE — Notifying the public of an impending emergency is a concern of community officials and first responders.

Lawrence County officials are in the process of converting existing fire department sirens to a citizen alert weather warning system.

Wayne Foster of South New Castle Borough, who has been involved with the project, began by working through the National Weather Service, which maps severe weather and can pinpoint areas in the path of a storm.

Through the service, he found an Alabama-based weather messaging system that can notify the community likely to be affected.

When in place, he said, this community alert system using strategically placed sirens will notify residents of potential dangers ranging from severe weather to man-made incidents such as a toxic spill.

The system will require a community education program.

Once residents hear a siren, they will have to know to check radio or television for details.

In an emergency, Brian Melcer, Lawrence County’s public safety director, can cut into radio or television broadcasts to tell residents to take action or seek shelter.

Melcer currently has this capability, but only Pulaski Township has an audio community alert system in place.

Melcer noted that converting fire sirens to weather sirens, “only works if that is all it is used for. These sirens then can’t be activated for every brush fire.”

Melcer said the county is in the process of upgrading its emergency radio system. He said volunteer fire department members are connected via cell phones, backed up with texting.

Residents can tap into a similar system by contracting through AlertPa to receive weather, health and other alerts on cell phones, pagers or as email.

Melcer said he favors using cell phones, text messaging, Facebook, Twitter and “any method available” to keep the public up to date on what is happening.

Neshannock Township Fire Chief John DiCola Jr. agrees. He said emergency management should follow the lead of schools and colleges who use cell phones and text messaging to spread the word.

“This makes it more personal, more immediate,” he said, adding many people have cell phones with them 24 hours a day.

“But will (such a message) be answered? Will they heed the warning or feel it is another test?” he asked. “One day, it will be the real thing.”

(Email: nlowry@ncnewsonline.com)

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