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Team effort required for emergency management during severe storms

Local News, Notes and Events
Posted by WhosPlayin on 2016/4/30 10:47:49 (3519 reads)

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Emergency management personnel monitor various resources including online, cell phones, and broadcast television. Right to left: Josh Roberts, Prit Patel, and Eric Hutmacher. (Photo by Steve Southwell)
By STEVE SOUTHWELL
steve@LewisvilleTexan.com

When severe weather threatens our city, a team comprised of professionals and volunteers steps up to help ensure that our citizens are informed and safe. And if storms should be severe enough to cause widespread damage or injuries, the team is ready to start bringing resources to bear.

This past Tuesday, the forecasts called for a “Particularly Dangerous Situation” with thunderstorms developing along a dryline that was moving across the state. Our area was in a tornado watch, and it was forecasted that there would be high winds, possible tornadoes, and large hail.

In the early afternoon, local governments began to take action. The City of Lewisville shut down its parks and athletic fields, and Lewisville ISD cancelled all of the night’s sporting events and extracurricular activities, anticipating the need for people to take shelter.

Lewisville Emergency Management Coordinator Josh Roberts decided that for this storm, he would monitor it from the city’s primary Emergency Operations Center (EOC), the training room at Central Fire Station, 188 N. Valley Pkwy.

Roberts was kind enough to allow me to join them for the evening and observe. When I arrived at 7 p.m., Roberts and his team were getting settled in for the night’s excitement. He was joined by Eric Hutmacher, emergency management specialist, and Prit Patel, who is an economic development coordinator for Lewisville. Patel has a background in emergency management and was drafted to the team for the night.


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Emergency Management Specialist Eric Hutmacher studies a radar image during the storm's march into Denton County. (Photo by Steve Southwell)
Roberts explained that they don’t always use the EOC to monitor. “Not every storm do we do this,” he said.

“[There are] more screens and displays, and we can process more quickly. The biggest thing is receiving info, [having] situational intelligence, making decisions, and getting info out to residents.”

Roberts had his laptop computer setup on one of the several rows of tables in the room. He used it to get into the National Weather Service chat room, displayed on one of the large rolling computer monitors of 50 inches or more.

At the front of the room on another screen, Hutmacher manned the weather radar. An ominous looking squall line had formed out west, and was working its way east to our area. Over the course of the night, multiple radar sources were consulted and compared.

Televisions in the room were tuned to local broadcast television stations.

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Ham radio operators Len Shipp (left) and Brian Jarvis, also a reservist with the Lewisville Fire Department, manned the 2-meter ham radio. (Photo by Steve Southwell)
When he wasn’t taking calls on his cell phone, Roberts was checking social media— another vital source of information these days. He and Patel used Tweetdeck to display multiple feeds from Twitter, based on certain keywords they thought would be likely to pull up citizen reports of damage or danger.

The team does not necessarily take social media reports at face value. Patel explained that they have their tools for spotting fakes.

The NWS chat program is a website that allows for a secure conversation between National Weather Service meteorologists, broadcast meteorologists, and emergency managers. Roberts says “other weather geeks” are also there. Over the course of the night, a couple messages scroll by with concerns about possible tornadoes - marked not for media release. Presumably, they were looking for confirmation on those.

Roberts kept a close eye on the NWS chat. It went down a couple of times early in the night, but was up during the time the storm rolled through.

Google Sheets is an online spreadsheet tool that Roberts’ team uses to keep a running log of various reports of interest around the city and county. 9–1–1 dispatchers are connected to the same spreadsheet, and can read and enter reports. This helps to ensure that all members of the team and 9–1–1 dispatchers have visibility to all information in real time. Example items logged might be buildings damaged, roads flooded, tree limbs down, storm warnings, and so forth.

Patel checked a video-sharing app on her phone called Periscope. People use it to post live video. She saw a couple videos that people have posted from areas to our west, where the storm had passed through.

Roberts also carries a radio tied in to the city’s police and fire system. And, the ham radios crackled to life periodically with chatter.

After getting everything set up how he wanted it, Roberts brewed a pot of coffee. He and Patel brought their dinner to eat in the EOC. The atmosphere was focused and busy, but not tense. Roberts was able to talk to me and explain some of the things he was doing.

Across the county, a group of licensed volunteer amateur radio operators (hams) trained in storm spotting, grabbed their portable ham radios, and hopped in their vehicles. Here in Denton County, they tuned their two-meter radios to the local 146.920 repeater, and when the Skywarn net was activated at 8:51 p.m., they began checking in.

The net control operator receives those check-ins and dispatches the spotters out to various parts of the county - usually between the storm’s approaching edge and the populated areas. Those spotters watch the skies, and they report back via radio when they see conditions meet minimum reporting criteria - usually a specific wind speed, hail size, or any tornadic activity.

Monitoring those reports are the National Weather Service, members of the media, and the emergency operations centers for local governments.

In Lewisville Tuesday night, volunteers Len Shipp– a city parks employee, and Brian Jarvis– a fire department reservist, manned the ham radio in the EOC, relaying reports of note from the Skywarn net.

During the course of the night, the number of people in the room grew. 9–1–1 dispatchers Patrick Burks and Matt LaMunion, both coming on shift for the evening, were the first to stop by. Then firefighters joined to observe.

Kathy Mullane and other members of the LFD reserves came by when they finished up another event they were working.

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Controls for the city's 15 emergency warning sirens are in a corner of the training room at Central Fire Station. (Photo by Steve Southwell)
Hutmacher, who was watching a broadcast news meteorologist with firefighters, pointed out to Roberts that the TV personality had just said he “guarantees the storm sirens in your community will go off tonight.” Roberts shook his head, and noted that it was irresponsible.

The EOC houses the controls for the city’s network of 15 storm sirens. A computer screen in a corner of the room shows their locations on an aerial map of the city. A special pull-out keyboard under the desk has the control panel for them. Roberts trusts me to pull it out so I can get a photo. I do so, and close it back quickly, paranoid of tripping, slipping, or dropping something on it that would accidentally set off the 129 decibel screaming monsters.

Roberts notes that even if he were not in the EOC, the 9–1–1 dispatchers have access to the controls, as do the fire captains. He trusts them completely.

Just after 9 p.m., there was chatter on the ham radios about spotters checking out lowerings near Valley View and Lindsay. We start to hear thunder in the EOC. A severe thunderstorm warning was issued for Denton County, and about the time that it came across on the NWS chat screen, everyone’s phones began ringing or buzzing with messages from the city’s emergency notification system.

Lightning struck a building in Denton, causing it to catch fire.

By this time, Roberts was very focused on NWS chat and radar. They noted that radar was showing a gust front out on the leading edge of the storm, which had picked speed in its forward march to the east. At this point, the edge of the storm had just crossed the Denton County line.

A spotter observed a possible lowering near Coral City, north of the Texas Motor Speedway. Other spotters were out trying to get a visual on it.

Roberts and his team noted that the gust front had strong 45 mph winds. He explained that he felt the gust front meant that the main storm was less likely to have circulation in it.

NWS chat had a message regarding a 54 mph wind gust picked up at Denton Airport. Spotters reported winds in excess of 50 mph in Krum.

A little after 9:45 is when the wind part of the storm finally made it to Lewisville. Suddenly, it was howling. Shipp looked at the EOC’s weather station and noted a 30 mph gust. I popped my head out the back door, and saw a mean-looking sky bearing down.

As the wind continued to howl, Mullane wondered aloud whether to roll down the steel shutters that protect the EOC’s glass windows.

Everyone remained focused on the radios, NWS chat, and radar screens, as rain pelted the back windows.

Just before 10 p.m., minor hail reports began to come in elsewhere in the county. A while later, pea-sized hail was reported near FM 407 and FM 2499. A power outage was reported near Texas Motor Speedway.

Roberts brought up a power outage map from TNMP and saw that no outages had been reported in Lewisville.

After studying radars and chat for a bit, Roberts decided the storm was not going to be as severe as predicted. “It’s a lot of nothing,” he said.

His phone rang, and he told someone on the other end, “We’ll still get some rain, but honestly, I think that’s all it’s going to be. Thunder and lightning— and we’ll get some alarm calls... ...You got it— pizza and a keg on the way,” he joked.

By 10:18 p.m., the thunderstorm warning had expired, and Skywarn had shut down the net. There was a palpable feeling of disappointment that the excitement was over.

Jarvis turned off the ham radio.

Shipp and Roberts discussed how the pre–storm hype did not match the outcome and how the public could perceive it as “crying wolf.”

“They sure did amp up the messaging for this event,” said Roberts. “It was the right decision. Always err on the side of caution.”

The conversation turned to food when someone asked where the snacks were. Assistant Fire Chief Terry McGrath teased Roberts: “Summer [Wilhelm Hall - the former emergency manager] used to bring food in!”

Roberts realized that in the excitement, he forgot to eat the sandwich he had picked up for dinner hours earlier.

Follow the Lewisville Office of Emergency Management on Twitter: @LewisvilleOEM

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