Perfect storm delays sirens

Calls overwhelm 911 center, miss tornado warning

A quick-moving, high-velocity storm caused so many calls to 911 that the county’s Emergency Operations Center dispatchers didn’t immediately hear the National Weather Service issuing a tornado warning for Bartholomew County.

Emergency Operations Center director Ed Reuter told the Bartholomew County commissioners that dispatchers were overwhelmed with high call volume from people seeking help and did not hear a notification to activate the tornado warning system sent by the Indiana Data and Communications system.

It took about 19 minutes for the county’s 17 warning sirens to activate.

County officials and Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop attended the commissioners meeting Monday to learn more from Reuter about what happened the night of April 28, when severe thunderstorms rolled through Bartholomew and Brown counties, causing thousands of residents to lose power and causing damage to trees, outbuildings and homes.

“We learned during the floods in 2008 that even though you think you are diligent and thorough, you can still be overwhelmed,” Lienhoop said at the meeting. “Nature is both unpredictable and a lot bigger than us.”

The storm, which grew in intensity with little or no advance warning to Bartholomew County residents, began moving rapidly as it approached Columbus, said Shannon Hinton, Bartholomew County Emergency Management director.

The storm was moving so fast that most of the severe weather was halfway through Bartholomew County before warnings could be issued, Hinton said.

Three separate and changing storm warnings that began coming in at 7:43 p.m. were all issued no more than two minutes apart, Hinton said.

Between 7 and 9 p.m., on April 28, there were 412 incoming calls — 192 reports sent out by the dispatchers — and 1,924 radio messages made by emergency workers that dispatchers had to acknowledge. That’s more than six times what’s normal for dispatchers on a Friday night.

Besides storm developments, there also were a large number of incidents unrelated to the weather, ranging from gas odors and property damage to medical emergencies and drug violations, the report states.

While seven dispatchers worked during the storm, an analysis concluded that was half the number would which have been required to handle the volume and rapidly developing incidents that needed a police, fire or ambulance response, Reuter said.

“It was almost like a bomb being dropped on our Emergency Operations Center,” Reuter said.

At 7:47 p.m., a tone received through a law enforcement communications system went off that signaled the sirens should be activated, but “due to the din of the activity and call volume, the audible alarm was not heard,” Reuter’s report to the commissioners said.

Although one dispatcher was standing three feet from the weather radio, he was unable to hear anything above the noise and chaos, Reuter said.

“It was nobody’s fault,” Reuter said.

Officially, the investigation concludes the 19-minute delay was caused by task saturation, a term Reuter defined as “having too much to do without enough time, tools or resources to complete the work.”

In order to prevent similar delays during future storms, seven recommendations were made including having automatic siren activation, more elaborate training exercises, having dispatchers place their cellphones at their desks to better see automatic notifications and encouraging more widespread use of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radios.

But the top recommendation was to encourage wider participation in the Everbridge emergency notification system, which automatically puts out alerts no longer than a few seconds after a warning is issued to residents registered to receive them on their cellphones and land lines, Hinton said.

Those notifications went out immediately, despite the delay in activating outdoor sirens, she said.

“Every system has the potential to fail, so that’s why we encourage everyone to rely on multiple sources,” Hinton said.

Recommendations

In response to a delay in activitating tornado warning sirens during an April 28 storn, a recommendation was presented Monday to the Bartholomew County Commissioners on ways to avoid a similar situation in the future.

  • Reinforce the possible need for manual operations by war-gaming high-intensity situations during regular staff meetings to minimize the potential of human error.
  • Ensure regular training and familiarization of back-up system operation.
  • Follow up on the possibility of having outdoor sirens activated without human intervention. This could include a direct feed from the National Weather Service similar to the Everbridge Smart Weather App.
  • Utilize local media to encourage residents to sign up for the Everbridge Notification Systems. Discuss notification and alerts at county fairs.
  • Promote the signup of the Everbridge systems – especially in mobile home parks and apartments that have a low number of contacts.
  • Request that all on-duty dispatchers have their cell phones in view at all stations in the event the Everbridge System is activated. Don’t wait for messages through the law enforcement telecommunications system.
  • Continue to encourage residents to procure weather radios. Identify methods to obtain radios for low-income residents free-of-cost, particularly in mobile home parks.

How to sign up for automatic alerts

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.

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