9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Make the Right Call with Advanced Weather Technology

Taken from Emergency Number Professional Magazine May/June 2009
Written by Dan Buck, director at DTN/Meteorlogix (Minneapolis, MN). He has more than 20 years of experience consulting with businesses on how to best mitigate weather related risks. He provides public safety organizations with the resources they need to keep the public and responders safe.

When handling an emergency, responders need to be aware of inclement weather conditions to ensure their own safety and keep the public out of harm's way. By using advanced technology and proactively monitoring weather, emergency professionals will always be able to make the right call.

Public safety officials and EMS responders spend a lot of time training and planning for how to react when an emergency call comes into a 911 dispatch center. Each emergency presents different circumstances that public safety professionals need to be prepared for. Dispatchers and EMS responders go through checklists to ensure proper steps are taken to ensure the safety of community members and the responders themselves.

Although precautionary measures are taken to ensure safety, one variable that can throw a wrench into emergency planning is severe weather. Bad weather can throw off a well-planned rescue if it has not been closely monitored. Weather conditions need to be factored into the decisions that public safety officials make. Having accurate, up-to-the-minute weather information allows responders to adjust their plans accordingly to account for precipitation, wind, changing temperatures and other weather related incidents that impact rescue efforts.

Communications centers are constantly expanding on their technologies and many have implemented the use of voice broadcasting, a system that allows numerous voice messages to be sent to large volumes of phone numbers that go directly to first responders and the public. In the case of approaching weather hazards and even chemical spills, this improves the ability to move people and objects out of harm's way, saving lives and reducing damage to property.

An accurate and convenient way to monitor weather conditions is to implement real-time, location specific weather information from a weather service. Receiving updates based on expert insight from meterologists gives public safety officials advanced knowledge to take proactive, not reactive measures.

Keeping on top of severe weather and establishing alert parameters to monitor conditions that affect safety is important. Weather information providers have simplified the process for monitoring incoming storms, and have developed systems that allow users to look at weather for specific locations, not just by county. Public safety officials can easily set alerts that give them a tap on the shoulder when severe weather is moving into their area. This is a safer alternative than having responders try to figure out what the weather is going to do. This timely shoulder tap allows EMS responders to more closely observe weather activity to determine exact dangers contained within a storm, when it is expected to hit, direction that it is heading and its anticipated duration.

With advanced weather information only a click away, EMS teams can rapidly respond to any emergency situation. Responders can use the weather information to navigate icy roads and choose the route that will get them to the scene in the safest and quickest manner. Emergency responders cannot wait until an emergency occurs to check the weather; instead they need advanced foresight on how conditions are expected to change while they're responding to an emergency.

Mobile Weather Alerts

On occasion, emergency responders spend hours at the scene of an emergency. Considering the amount of time that passes from arrival to clean up, responders need to constantly stay in tune with changing weather conditions in order to keep people on the scene out of harm's way. An effective way to monitor weather conditions is to receive mobile updates directly on a cell phone. This technology provides EMS responders and public safety officials with mobile alerts that are sent directly to their cell phones and e-mail, allowing emergency crews to make decisions at a crisis site that accurately account for incoming weather.

Considering that advanced notice of approaching severe weather is essential for making safe decisions, another notification that allows emergency personnel to gauge severe weather threats is all clear alerts. These alerts give public safety professionals a sign that it's okay to resume activity, particularly following an incident where lighting was in the area. Resuming activity obviously takes a backseat to safety on the list of priorities, but all clear alerts have proven to be especially helpful for large events.


When monitoring severe weather activity at an emergency site or in the dispatch center, one of the most important elements is activity taking place within storm corridors. Storm corridors are particularly important for spotting tornadic activity and mesocyclones--small cyclones that arise near thunderstorms which sometimes are associated with the occurrence of tornadoes. If a mesocyclone is located in a nearby storm corridor, responders need to be aware that there is an increased risk for tornadoes to develop. Storm corridor updates allow public safety officials to see where there is the greatest chance for a tornado and pinpoint where there may be a potential touch down. In larger cities, emergency management agencies use this information to put certain teams on "high" or "critical" alert. Tornadoes are known to cause a lot of damage, but early warning and awareness of possible tornado activity can help emergency management professionals mitigate risks.


Although tornadoes pose a deadly problem, emergency professionals are much more likely to encounter lightning storms. Emergency management agencies that receive real-time lightning information have the ability to examine lightning stroke data that is critical to the safety of the responders. Advanced lightning data helps agencies see exact locations and times of lightning strokes that have occurred, and predicts where lightning is striking relative to storm corridors.

In addition to capturing detailed lightning stroke data, it is also imperative to monitor potential lightning storms that are approaching. Emergency agencies monitor lightning activity within a 30 or 90 mile radius and set perimeters to receive lightning advisories and warnings. A common distance to set for receiving advisories is 15 miles, and most agencies receive alerts when lightning is anywhere from three to five miles away. The difference between an advisory and an alert is the call to action. An advisory is more of a tap on the shoulder to pay close attention to dangerous weather conditions nearby, whereas an alert is a signal to take precautionary safety measures such as clearing crowded public places and getting people to an enclosed structure.

While receiving advanced lightning information is important for public safety professionals, it is also important to understand how lightning works because some of the advice people receive is inaccurate. Contrary to popular belief, lightning does not seek out metal objects; instead it seeks out the highest point to connect with. So, if a worker in a metal cherry picker gets struck by lightning, it's not because the bucket is made of metal, it's because that was the highest point for lightning to strike. Getting to the lowest point possible is the safest option if you're unable to take cover in an enclosed area during a lightning storm. Like other forms of severe weather, lightning forces public safety officials to make a lot of decisions on the fly that directly impact community safety.


When thinking about weather and the hazards is presents, we tend to think about the immediate risks and the associated effects. However, with advanced weather forecasting technologies, having foresight into probable flooding becomes not only possible, but much less painful. Weather watches, warnings and advisories are a necessary percursor to the imminent danger of flash floods or severe flooding, but rainfall estimates also play a vital role in knowing what to expect and how to best prepare. It is best to have a holistic overview of all conditions that will directly impact the probability of flooding and areas most likely to be affected.

The Dangers of Winter

Oftentimes winter weather is not placed in the same category as tornadoes, floods or other severe weather risks. However, recent Federal Highway Administration data shows that annually there are more than 10 times as many weather-related road fatalities than non-driving weather fatalities (7,400 annually versus 650 annually). A closer look at the statistics would reveal that many of the deaths are winter related, while some are caused by fog and rain.

Winter driving fatalities have become more preventable, thanks to the development of pavement forecasts. Now, advanced weather technology can anticipate frost on overpasses and ice build-up on roads, so proactive measures can be taken to make roads less hazardous during the winter. This is where communicating with the public works department or department of transportation is crucial, as they are responsible for salting, sanding and other winter road maintenance. Obtaining pavement temperatures, helps transportation and public safety officials gauge the risk of not just ice build-up, but also the possibility of overnight re-freeze situations. By using pavement temperatures and not relying on air temperatures, today's emergency responders can do a better job scheduling staff for impending severe weather, which reduces costs and increases safety.

Chemical Spills

In addition to precipitation, high wind speeds can create havoc for emergency responders. Wind is especially dangerous when combined with a hazardous material spill. EMS personnel need the ability to view a quick plume model, which takes into account wind speed and direction to determine the safest entrance point to an emergency scene and what areas need to be blocked off.

Expert Advice

Being able to access real-time weather information and receive timely alerts gives public safety officials the tools they need to keep emergency crews and civilians safe. However, sometimes it can be overbearing or confusing. Receiving direct insight from a meterologist on expected weather conditions can also help agencies prepare for the precise weather hazards they are likely to encounter. Advanced notice allows time to alert crews to be on standby and ready to react based on the impending conditions.

Some professional weather packages give public safety professionals the opportunity to ask specific questions to experienced meterologists. Officials can ask questions through an online forum or set up conference calls to speak with meterologists directly. A quick call can help public safety professionals understand exactly what the forecast means for their specific area.

Real-time, location specific weather is critical for public safety departments in order to carry out proper precautionary measures. Having advanced weather information allows emergency professionals to place storm trackers, crews and other personnel in position to react quickly to an emergency created by weather or an unrelated incident that may be affected by weather. When handling an emergency, responders need to be aware of inclement weather conditions to ensure their own safety and keep the public out of harm's way. By using advanced technology and proactively monitoring weather, emergency professionals will always be able to make the right call.

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