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Matt Von Pinnon, Published August 15 2010

Von Pinnon: Emergency alert systems should get with the times

This summer’s excessive severe weather – some of it deadly – has really awakened us to a much bigger issue that has more to do with how we live today.

After all, dangerous and deadly weather is as old as weather itself.

But how we learn about it before it potentially harms us largely depends on how we communicate, and how we communicate is changing about as fast as the weather around here.

As it turns out, the traditional methods we use to alert people to dangerous weather may be antiquated and are generally misunderstood.

This was evident again on July 27. In the early morning hours, Cass and Clay counties sounded the area’s civil defense sirens after officials received reports of a tornado in the area.

Public safety officials did what was expected of them, later clarifying that the sirens are meant to alert those outside to seek shelter.

Those inside their homes who actually heard the sirens over the whir of air conditioners or through air-tight windows on that hot, muggy night did as they’ve been taught. They went to the basement or to another solid low structure, assuming a tornado was spotted and they were in its potential path.

As originally intended, the civil defense sirens were meant to alert people to seek more information on radio or TV. The sirens are used in conjunction with the Emergency Alert System, which cuts into broadcasting to provide more specific information.

This is an important distinction because one can’t assume why the sirens are sounding. One may not want to go to the basement if it’s a flash-flood warning, for instance.

One problem with all this is that radios and TVs may not work well or at all during severe storms, and that’s assuming people use either to get information.

Ask a person under age 35 if they own or use a radio and you’re likely to get a puzzled look. The iPod has largely supplanted over-the-air radio with the younger set and, to my knowledge, iPods don’t get EAS announcements.

More and more young people are also accessing TV shows on their computers, not using over-the-air programming.

Essentially, the younger you are, the less likely you are to be “tuned in.”

Which is why last week’s move by Cass-Clay officials to add weather alerts to the Code Red emergency notification system was such a good call.

Residents who sign up for the system will be called and alerted when tornado warnings are issued by the National Weather Service. A similar service is offered through inforum.com (look for the red button on the home page to sign up).

Our society is more mobile and yet in some ways less connected than it’s ever been. Right or wrong, people expect news (and warnings) to reach them where they live through channels they actually use.

Our severe weather and emergency alert systems must mirror how we live today.

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579 or mvonpinnon@forumcomm.com