Calls overwhelm county dispatchers; sirens delayed

There were so many calls made to the Bartholomew County Emergency Operations Center during Friday night’s storm that dispatchers were unable to handle the volume, officials said.

At 8 p.m. Friday, about 15 minutes after the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for Bartholomew County, 103 calls came in to the 911 center at the same moment, said Ed Reuter, the county’s 911 Emergency Operations Center director.

Among about 500 calls which came into the center Friday night in an hour’s time, as many as 270 could have gone unanswered as dispatchers attempted to keep up with the volume, Reuter said.

“It was all coming in that fast,” Reuter told the Bartholomew County commissioners Monday morning.

In the aftermath, county officials are working to understand why outdoor tornado sirens were not immediately activated.

The intense 911 call volume included reports that trees had been blown over and utility wires were down in the road; people also called to report transformer fires as well as security alarms going off and power outages, Reuter said.

Printed call logs from the 911 center listed more than 65 weather-related calls starting about 7:45 p.m. and continuing until after 8:30 p.m. Friday.

Besides storm-related calls, Bartholomew County dispatchers were also dealing with calls about vehicle accidents, suspicious people, requests for checks on welfare of individuals and several possible overdoses.

Bartholomew County does have a mutal-aid rollover agreement with Johnson County’s 911 center, but Reuter said that county had its own challenges with the fast-moving storm.

Five dispatchers were on duty in the Emergency Operations Center in Columbus as the storm approached, Reuter said.

Two off-duty dispatchers went immediately to the E-911 center as the storm continued, and two more arrived minutes later — as did Reuter, Emergency Management director Shannon Hinton and others.

Reuter was caught in a hail storm with his wife at 25th Street and Taylor Road before he could arrive at the center, he said.

Prior to the storm, emergency workers were aware of pre-storm activity in eastern Brown and western Bartholomew County, Reuter said. But as the storm approached Columbus, it began moving substantially faster east as the winds grew stronger, he said.

At one point, Reuter said dispatchers activated the county’s backup emergency telephone system for outgoing calls so dispatchers could call entities such as Duke Energy and the Louisville & Indiana Railroad to notify them about trees across roads and railroad tracks.

Siren activation delayed

In the midst of all this activity, a delay occurred in manual activation of Bartholomew County’s outdoor tornado sirens, which has triggered an investigation into the cause, Reuter said.

The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for Bartholomew County at about 7:47 p.m. Friday, but the county’s tornado warning sirens did not activate until 8:04 p.m., according to Emergency Operations Center records.

The volume of calls coming in is being evaluated as a possible cause for the delay in activating the tornado sirens, Reuter said.

Activating the sirens is a manual process assigned to dispatchers at the Emergency Operations Center, he said.

After the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning, the agency sends a message to the Indiana Data and Communication Section, which sends it out to public safety answering points, including the county’s emergency operations center, Reuter said.

An audible alarm sounds that a message has been received from the section, and dispatchers are then required to activate the sirens.

“We’re looking into the possibility that the information was properly transmitted, but we were so busy and it was so loud that we never heard the audible notification,” Reuter said.

Reuter met early Monday morning with Hinton and Columbus City Garage manager Bryan Burton, whose departments are involved in the notification process, and city technician Lance Marsh, he told the commissioners.

The investigation, which will also include the National Weather Service, will try to pinpoint whether the delay was mechanical or the result of human error, he said.

“We just don’t know where the problem is, or whether it was local or at the state level,” Hinton said.

That report, which will include recommendations on how to prevent a similar incident from reoccurring, will be sent to the 911 Emergency Management board, Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop and the three county commissioners, Reuter said.

It may be up to a week before the results are released into the tornado-siren-activation delay, Reuter told the commissioners.

“We think it’s important not to jump to any conclusions,” he said.

Automated alerts

The storm-warning system has a redundant means of notification, including sending out alerts over the emergency Everbridge system to residents who have registered to receive them on their phones, Hinton said.

Although the sirens were delayed, about 24,060 alerts immediately went out to cell phones and computers after the tornado warning was issued, county officials said.

“Most told me that’s how they learned about it,” Reuter said.

Television, radio and Everbridge warnings are designed to be the first notifications to individuals, Reuter said. Those warnings came out within seconds of the National Weather Service warning, he said.

The tornado sirens are meant primarily to alert people who are outdoors, he said.

Assistant managing editor Julie McClure contributed to this report.

Sign up for notifications

To sign up for automated alerts from Bartholomew County’s Everbridge system about approaching danger, visit the county website at bartholomew.in.gov or call 812-379-1500.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.