New tech alerts of tornadoes quicker
Back in 1985, people had televisions, radios and scanners to let them know of severe weather and tornadoes.
Today with apps, cellphones, email and other technology people are much more quickly being notified to seek shelter with a tornado sighting.
Rodger Laird, operations manager at the Trumbull County 911 Center, said with the newer technology and computer weather alerts, activating tornado warning sirens can be done quickly with the flip of a switch.
“There is so much more today done by computers in making people aware of a tornado,” he said.
Laird said when the National Weather Service in Cleveland issues a tornado warning, staff can activate the 65 tornado sirens throughout the county.
“We can see on a computer if any of the sirens has failed or is not working and can fix it or notify that community of a problem. It can be easily fixed quickly. Years ago it would have been a longer process.” he said.
Most of the warning sirens are located at fire department buildings or the center of a township or community.
Laird said sirens are activated for three-minute intervals every seven minutes until the warning is lifted.
While the 911 center activates most of the sirens, Newton Falls, Niles, Lordstown and Girard activate their own.
“The warnings today are much more efficient and quicker in letting the public know a tornado has been sighted or conditions are in effect for a possible tornado,” Laird said.
Sirens are tested at noon the first Saturday of each month to see if they are working.
Laird said in addition to NWS, notification to the center comes from other outlets such as the Weather Channel and state agencies.
Laird was a boy in 1985 and remembers when he heard on the scanner a tornado was heading to the Hubbard area. He said no tornado in the Valey has come close in comparison to magnitude of damage and death as the May 31, 1985, tornado.
The tornado was an F5 and stayed on the ground for 47 miles starting in Portage County at 6:30 p.m. and then traveling into Trumbull County, causing damage in Newton Falls, Niles and Hubbard before moving into Wheatland, Pa., at 7:10 p.m. There were 18 deaths and 310 injuries reported along the storm’s track.
Devastated was the Niles Park Plaza off U.S. Route 422, the location of the Niles Skating Rink. An hour later the rink would have been filled with skaters. The F5 tornado was the worst for Ohio since the F5 that hit Xenia in 1974.
Dennis O’Hara, director of the Mahoning County Emergency Management Agency, said when notified the agency is able to activate the 52-battery powered sirens throughout the county. All the sirens are able to be activated by radio.
“They are battery-powered sirens so if there is power outage they still operate,” he said.
O’Hara said when the NWS issues a warning the sirens are activated for three minutes and then continue going off every 10 minutes during the warning.
“The sirens are for outdoor warning. When I speak to people about weather warnings I tell them they should also have weather alert radios in their homes or apps on their phones for weather alerts,” O’Hara said, noting the NWS has its own app, as do television stations.
He said schools and many businesses prepare for tornado season by having tornado drills held in March.
O’Hara said with the newest technology there are even more efficient means to warn people today with equipment detecting unusual weather patterns more quickly than 30 years ago.
“All forms of notification are good. We use every means of warning as possible,” he said.
He said Mahoning County has not had that many tornadoes. In 2014 there was a small tornado in the Ellsworth and Canfield areas.
“There was not a lot of damage,” he said.
Still, he said it is important to test all the tornado sirens 12 months per year. “Tornado warning sirens are only activated for tornadoes — not for severe weather,” he said.
Eric Wilhelm, meteorologist for 21-WFMJ TV, said the main change since the 1985 tornado is that technology to warn people has advanced in 35 years.
“The lead time to warn people when we are notified of a tornado is much quicker. Within a few minutes we have warnings on television and on apps to let people know to be prepared and find a safe place,” he said.
Wilhelm said meterologists today have much more training to see unusual weather patterns in radar.
“Trained meteorologists can detect unusual weather patterns using the newest radar equipment. “You can tell looking at the radar if something appears and looks ominous,” he said.
Wilhelm said in case of a tornado warning the news staff will stay on the air to keep the public informed. He said often the meterologists are trained to stay on the air and keep public up to date.
He also stressed the importance of tornado drill training in schools.
Wilhelm said the television station has apps to warn people of tornadoes and severe weather and also posts videos on the television website and Facebook
In 2019, Southington and Brookfield experienced tornadoes on Father’s Day and also on Jan. 8, 2019, which was an unexpected and surprise tornado.
Wilhelm said when discussing top weather stories in the Mahoing Valley, the May 31, 1985, tornado is among the top weather events — as is the 1978 winter blizzard
“Whenever there is a list of top weather events the 1985 tornado is always on the list. Nothing in the past 35 years can compare locally to that tornado,” Wilhelm said.