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Tornado warning systems rise to the challenge in DFW cities

Posted Sunday, Apr. 08, 2012  comments  Print Reprints

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ARLINGTON -- As an EF-2 tornado tore its way along Arlington's western edge Tuesday afternoon, warning sirens wailed for 23 minutes straight, underscoring the need for residents in the 100-square-mile city to take cover.

"Because we knew we had confirmed tornadoes on the ground, we wanted them to go off for so long that there was no mistaking there was an immediate threat," Emergency Management Administrator Irish Hancock said.

The sirens are typically set to sound for three or nine minutes depending on the severity of the emergency.

All 52 sirens worked, and city officials say that played a key role in the lack of deaths or serious injuries. At least 523 buildings, mostly homes, were damaged between U.S. 287 and Arkansas Lane.

Though a tornado in 2000 damaged about as many homes, Arlington's ability to warn residents has improved dramatically since then.

The city has spent about $900,000 upgrading its sirens after some failed in 2000. It now plans to add at least one $30,000 siren every year to cover areas where trees or buildings could block the sound.

The sirens are supposed to be audible from about one mile away.

"Our 52 sirens cover every square inch of the city," Hancock said.

But the city also relies on other technology during bad weather.

Arlington has about 100 traffic cameras installed along major thoroughfares and plans 30 more. Before public works crews arrive at a scene, the cameras can warn them about downed power lines and trees and debris blocking roadways.

Police and fire officials are also exploring the use of unmanned aircraft and video from surveillance cameras at natural gas well sites.

And Arlington is considering buying an alert system, like those in Dallas, Fort Worth and other cities, that would notify all residents or those in specific neighborhoods about weather threats or other emergencies through home phones, cellphones or e-mail.

Heeding the sirens

Jo Blackmon was driving along Southwest Green Oaks Boulevard near Park Springs Boulevard in southwest Arlington when she heard the sirens go off at 1:17 p.m.

"I knew I needed to get home," Blackmon said.

Moments after she pulled into her garage on Homestead Drive and took shelter in the bathroom, the tornado hit her neighborhood near U.S. 287 and Sublett Road.

"It wasn't like a train. It was like a jet engine. I was on the floor with my hands over my head," Blackmon said. "If I was a minute or two later, who knows where I would be."

Blackmon's house, like others around it, had window and roof damage.

In 2000, many residents said they never heard the sirens. Eleven of 31 sirens failed, and the sirens covered only about 75 percent of the city.

In Fort Worth, officials say the city is also better-equipped to deal with tornadoes than in 2000, when a twister struck downtown. There had been talk of doing away with the sirens, but in 2003, the City Council approved $3 million to upgrade and expand the system.

Tuesday's tornadoes largely missed Fort Worth, but there were close calls.

A tornado briefly touched down east of Spinks Airport on the far south side, and sirens sounded three times during the storms.

After checking the siren map, officials said 70 to 90 of the 153 sirens sounded.

"I think we did a pretty good job," Fire Chief Rudy Jackson said. "The storms came up out of nowhere in a sense. We got the report of a tornado near Joshua in Johnson County, and we fired up the sirens then only in the southern part of the city as a tornado warning was issued for southern Tarrant County."

Arlington did encounter opposition from some residents while trying to beef up its warning system. They didn't want the blaring sirens, which are tested at 1 p.m. the first Wednesday of every month, so close to their homes.

"It's funny how many people don't want a siren in their back yard unless a tornado is coming," Hancock said.

Now Arlington works to install sirens in city parks if possible.

Only one resident has complained to the city about not hearing a siren Tuesday, Hancock said. That complaint is under investigation.

Jackson said Fort Worth had complaints that residents couldn't hear the sirens inside their homes. But he said the sirens weren't designed for that.

Mayor Betsy Price said the city was fortunate to have been missed by the worst of the storms but praised the way the system operated.

"I think by all indications it worked well," Price said. "I think we're in much better shape than we were in 2000."

Eyes in the sky

Arlington relied heavily Tuesday on radio reports from firefighters and volunteer storm spotters to track the tornado and identify affected neighborhoods. But new technology could give emergency responders information without putting people in harm's way.

The city has about 100 traffic cameras at intersections along major thoroughfares, which it didn't have during the 2000 tornado, and expects to add 30 on the south side, Public Works Director Keith Melton said. Those cameras are controlled by the Traffic Management Center at the Ott Cribbs Public Safety Center, also the site of the city's Emergency Operation Center.

The cameras are not placed on residential streets, however, which is where most of Tuesday's storm damage occurred, Melton said.

One day, Arlington could have its own eyes in the sky. Police are testing small remote-control aircraft designed to take high-resolution video and photos for law enforcement purposes.

The aircraft, which look like oversize toy helicopters, can also be equipped with night-vision cameras or thermal-imaging equipment to help officers find suspects or victims of traffic crashes or natural disasters.

"This is a perfect example of how we would be able to use that type of technology to assist us," Assistant Police Chief James Hawthorne said.

The city called on news helicopters and the Department of Public Safety to obtain aerial shots to assess the tornado's swath of damage.

"Instead of having to rely on somebody else's technology or tools, we would have had our own," Hawthorne said.

The city, working with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Justice Department, is testing the drones as part of a national law enforcement evaluation program and does not have authorization to fly the craft on operational missions.

Fire Chief Don Crowson said he plans to work with the natural gas industry to obtain access to video during and after emergencies from surveillance cameras now required at all Arlington gas well sites.

The real-time video feeds could help first responders identify damage at gas well sites and possible public safety threats before crews arrive.

Phone, e-mail

For years, Arlington has also considered an emergency alert system that would provide an additional way to warn the public, especially when hail, high winds or loud televisions and radios make the sirens harder to hear.

The city is researching options costing $50,000 to $150,000 that would send messages to residents through phone calls, texts or e-mail. The city previously had an e-mail alert system, Hancock said.

Southwest Arlington resident Virginia Brown said she would support a phone notification system. Brown was busy preparing for a yard sale at her Colebrook Trail home Tuesday afternoon when she received an automated phone call from Kennedale about the tornado alert before the sirens sounded in Arlington.

"That was essential," said Brown, whose home is in the Arlington city limits but the Kennedale school district. "Had I not been in touch with my husband, that would have been the only thing to tell me that was coming."

Brown grabbed her two dogs and her childhood Bible and covered herself with a twin-size mattress in the bathroom. The tornado ripped the second story from the house across from Brown's, flinging boards and debris through her windows and roof.

Brown, who was not injured, said residents can become complacent about sirens if nothing bad has happened during previous alarms.

She said seeing the city's phone number, which she had programmed into her caller ID, prompted her to take cover.

"I knew something was wrong and I needed to answer that call," Brown said.

Price noted that Fort Worth now has tools such as social media that it didn't have in 2000.

Currently, 2,200 citizens are registered through Nixle.com to receive messages from the city.

They can go to www.nixle.com, register and select the Fort Worth Office of Emergency Management to get messages. Or they can text their ZIP code to 888-777 to get text-message alerts from any emergency agency sending out alerts for their area.

Jackson said businesses can join a network to be warned of severe storms.

Glitches happen

But early warning technology doesn't always work as expected.

The Tarrant County College District has 1,100 emergency clocks with digital displays. Several malfunctioned during Tuesday's storms, but the district didn't have a number available Thursday.

"This is the first time that all of them have been activated in a real situation," spokesman Frank Griffis said. The district is manually fixing the technology, he said.

"We are trying to make sure it doesn't happen again," he said.

TCC also has an e-mail system to alert students about potential bad weather or other emergencies. And both the southeast Arlington campus and the University of Texas at Arlington have outdoor sirens that can be activated by the city.

Staff writers Bill Hanna and Diane Smith contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Susan Schrock, 817-709-7578

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