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Fayette County EMA, 911 work together

A June 15 tornadohit Bentonville Christian Church, leaving the church as piles of debris. A weather warning came after the tornado struck. Local officials are working to be able to issue earlier warnings.

By DARRELL SMITH - dsmith@newsexaminer.com

When severe weather approaches Fayette County, the 911 emergency dispatch center looks to the National Weather Service at Wilmington, Ohio for the official notification of watches and warnings.

The existing system had a glitch Saturday, June 15. Wilmington did not issue a tornado warning until a minute after a tornado hit the Bentonville Christian Church. Central dispatch in Connersville did not receive the notification for 10 minutes after the damage, nine minutes after the warning went out via Twitter.

Directors of the 911 center and Fayette County Emergency Management Agency have met and are developing plans to work better together. EMA has authority to issue weather alerts.

Also that night, a local issue in dispatching weather information came when dispatchers became overwhelmed with calls at the time of the weather event.

“I hate to say, we have Everbridge that does fine but if Wilmington is slow, then we’re going to be slow with Everbridge,” said Kelly Vanmeter, Fayette County 911 director.

Everbridge is a telephone call or email notification system for any type of notification be it weather, school closings or boil water advisory that needs to be distributed to the county or part of the county.

That night, Everbridge had an issue with getting the right location for the warning from the NWS, Vanmeter said.

The community wondered why dispatch did not get the information out, but in the June 15 event, Wilmington did not get it to the dispatchers, she said.

Adrian Ellis, Fayette County Emergency Management Agency director, recalled asking what it would take to move Fayette County back to the Indianapolis NWS to get more timely notifications. He learned it would take an act of congress.

The other issue that needs remedy arose when dispatchers on duty had too many calls to handle.

Vanmeter said agencies wanted information about the weather while dispatchers also had medical emergencies that had to be dispatched and other calls. The dispatchers on duty called her because of the number of calls they had to handle. She came in about 9:15 p.m., after the tornado had struck.

Fayette County 911 is a roll-over county to handle excess calls from Wayne County, and other counties as well. That night, she took a call from Applebee’s in Richmond to dispatch an ambulance for an injured person and a call for a tree down that blocked traffic in Wayne County.

“We are in need of a better weather policy,” she said. “We have one, we used it and now this happened. We’ve been very lucky but we need to get more strength in our weather policy.”

Fayette County Emergency Management Agency has the ability to issue weather alerts and can notify government entities and Everbridge of pending emergencies, she said. That would free dispatchers to handle emergencies other than weather.

The problem is that has not happened. On June 15, Ellis was out of state and could not be reached and at other times could not be reached, she said.

In Wayne County, a person in EMA watches the weather during storms and then can tell the 911 dispatchers to notify the community, she said.

Ellis said with the equipment in his office, he can learn about approaching weather hours in advance and can begin notifying 911. 

Vanmeter and Ellis have met since that night.

“I will begin submitting data to her and we can broadcast that,” he said. “The game plan we came up with, we’re going to collaborate on a plan how to get the information over so that we don’t have to wait on Wilmington.”

Then 911 can broadcast it or EMA can do it, he said.

A website will be built for community information, and it will be posted on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. News media will be able to access it to get information to the public. Maps and weather information can be posted, he said.

The EMA office has weather alert radios for free distribution to the public. The priority is to get them to residents of mobile homes and in the fringe areas of the county, particularly Posey Township and south.

“I have nothing against Wilmington, but the reality is, we’re behind the curve and ultimately we can help them,” Ellis said. “I have talked to the National Weather Service and they have no problem communicating directly with me. We still will be under the congressional (NWS) district but Indianapolis can submit data to me.”

Vanmeter has signed up for some new notification systems referred to her by Wayne County 911 and EMA Director Matthew Cain that should help with notifications. She also is looking for a public notification system that is less expensive than Everbridge.

A small book Ellis authored a few years ago, “Weather Safety and Information,” will be reprinted and posted online to educate the public about weather, including the differences between warning and watch, he said. The weather spotter program needs to be revived.

“I hope the future is they do merge (EMA and 911) because we can have a strong union to take care of the community together,” Vanmeter said. 

In the event of future weather events, she asked the public to only contact 911 in an emergency because the dispatchers are very busy and are aware the storm is coming.

“We are taking the weather seriously,” Vanmeter said. “We don’t want community to think we don’t have plans.”

EMA and 911 can only get information out. It is up to the public to take action to save themselves, and there is nothing can be done to save property in weather events, Ellis said.