Mansfield residents say they never received weather alerts from the city or got them too late

Posted Friday, May. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Last week’s severe weather — which produced the deadliest tornado outbreak in Dallas-Fort Worth in 50 years — has also stirred questions in Mansfield about how the city notifies residents during emergencies.

“I think it’s ridiculous that we don’t have sirens,” said Stacy VanCurin, a lifelong Mansfield resident whose home in the old center of the city was darkened by a power outage during a thunderstorm May 15.

She had to rely on her cellphone and its remaining charge to monitor the weather. “It’s incredibly frustrating.”

Like many in Mansfield, VanCurin was unaware of CodeRED, a personalized weather alert service provided by the city. City officials consider the system a worthy alternative to sirens — one they want more residents to use. About 9,640 people in a city of almost 60,000 have signed up. CodeRED automatically dials their phone numbers en masse when it picks up warnings from the National Weather Service.

From phone, email and text alerts to outdoor sirens, Tarrant County cities have various tools to alert residents in emergencies.

Cities including Mansfield, Colleyville, Kennedale, Roanake, Southlake and Trophy Club let residents sign up to receive alerts through various media. Others, including Arlington, Fort Worth and Grapevine, activate sirens as well as use social media.

The debate in Mansfield over sirens peaked after a tornado ripped through the city in May 2001, damaging 100 homes and businesses but causing no serious injuries. The City Council decided that sirens are too costly and ineffective, since many people can’t hear them indoors.

They are designed to be audible from about one mile away but can be muffled by rain, hail and wind, Arlington Fire Chief Don Crowson said. But with 380,000 to 500,000 residents and visitors in Arlington at any time, Crowson said, the sirens are a “highly effective manner of reaching a large amount of people in a short amount of time.”

“The purpose is for outdoor warning only. When you are indoors, you should be connected to media, radio or TV and monitoring the storms that way,” he said.

Arlington’s 53 sirens were activated during last week’s severe weather. Though no tornadoes touched down in the city, 16 were reported across North Texas, including an EF4 twister in the Granbury area that leveled homes and killed six people.

“We know the siren system to be a reliable method of warning people,” Crowson said.

It wailed for 23 minutes straight in April 2012 as an EF2 tornado damaged more than 500 homes.

“That produced enough warning we believed to help save lives,” he said.

Arlington has spent about $900,000 to upgrade its sirens after some failed in 2000. It now plans to add at least one $30,000 siren every year, officials have said.

Crowson said the city is considering adding a new one this year depending on funding.

Checking problems

Mansfield officials said CodeRED performed smoothly during the storms May 15 despite several complaints by residents that the alerts arrived late or not at all.

In each case, people who reported that they never received calls from CodeRED weren’t supposed to be notified. They weren’t in the direct path of a thunderstorm that formed over the city and moved northeast into Grand Prairie, said Assistant Fire Chief Roy McCleary, the city’s emergency management coordinator.

Many residents don’t realize that CodeRED, a service subscribed to by many area cities, can be so geographically specific with its warnings, McCleary said.

“I think it worked like it should have,” McCleary said.

Arlington researched whether to invest in an automated notification system like Mansfield’s after last year’s tornado but decided that the technology, which would have cost $125,000 to $175,000 annually, is still too limited for the city’s needs.

Based on testing, the city estimated that it would take at least six hours to contact Arlington’s nearly 93,000 households by telephone, which would not be useful in severe weather.

Since the mid-1990s, Fort Worth has been able to send messages to all landlines or just those in a specific area. But the system has limits, officials said. It can make only about 48 calls at a time. With nearly 300,000 households, Fort Worth relies on sirens to help notify residents about severe weather.

The city has registered 200 people for a new program that sends text and email alerts to residents who have vision or hearing impairments, said Juan Ortiz, the city’s emergency management coordinator.

Mayor Betsy Price has estimated that the city has 20,800 residents who are deaf or hard of hearing and 14,500 who have vision impairments.

“We’re still trying to get the word out to all those who are eligible,” said Ortiz, whose office has been working to spread the word with organizations on a mayor’s committee for disabilities.

Fort Worth, in partnership with Deaflink, launched the service in February. Anyone living in a Fort Worth ZIP code can sign up at www.ftwahas.deaflink.com to receive text and email alerts on emergencies.

Mixed messaging

Colleyville uses both sirens and a direct messaging system to notify residents. People who sign up for CodeRED will receive calls or even texts during emergencies.

City spokeswoman Mona Gandy said that when a tornado hit in 2009, residents noted that CodeRED gave them enough warning.

“CodeRED and sirens work out really well for us,” she said.

Southlake relies on five sirens and the direct notification system Connect CTY, which has grown to 10,730 registered contacts since 2008.

Grapevine’s outdoor warning system, which has 14 sirens, was upgraded in 2009 and 2010. The city lacks a phone notification system but does turn to social media such as Twitter and Facebook, said Carrie Little, Grapevine’s emergency management coordinator.

“The messages come from our police and fire departments,” Little said.

In December, Keller celebrated its third recognition by the National Weather Service for being StormReady. It has a 24-hour warning point and emergency operations center; more than one way to receive severe-weather forecasts and warnings and to alert the public of them; a system that monitors local weather; public readiness seminars; and a formal hazardous-weather plan that includes training weather-spotters and holding emergency exercises. 

“That the city of Keller has been designated a StormReady Community since 2003 is a great testament to the programs and protocols we’ve put in place to respond to severe-weather emergencies,” Keller Fire Chief David Jones said.

“Public safety is our top priority, though, and that means evaluating our ability to monitor weather alerts from the National Weather Service and our ability to share that information with the public on a regular basis. … We are always looking for new ways to enhance our preparedness program.”

Keller has 11 sirens. Three of those, primarily in park areas, also have voice warnings.

The city also communicates severe-weather and emergency information through its website, social media outlets and the Keller Connect email notification system.

Keller can broadcast emergency information by radio at 1650 AM. The station broadcasts the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather station unless city officials update it with a message.

Roanoke has five sirens placed strategically throughout the city. 

“I estimate our coverage on developed land at greater than 90 percent,” City Manager Scott Campbell said. “We are about to add another siren to better cover the Fairway Ranch residential subdivision that will soon begin developing.”

Campbell said Roanaoke also has a mass-notification phone system called BlackBoard Connect that allows messages to be sent to landlines or cellphones or by text or email, depending on what residents request. 

Trophy Club also has sirens and a phone-email-text notification system and uses social media to keep residents apprised of emergencies.

“The current emergency management plan for Trophy Club aligns with local and state preparedness requirements,” Emergency Management Coordinator Danny Thomas said. “We have a state-of-the-art warning system and recently added the third siren to accommodate residential growth on the north side of town.”   

Westlake has a system to alert residents by phone, text or email.

Staff writers Dustin Dangli, Susan McFarland, Scott Nishimura and Marty Sabota contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Susan Schrock, 817-390-7639 Twitter: @susanschrock Robert Cadwallader, 817-390-7641 Twitter: @Kaddmann

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