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Transcript of JoCo on the Go podcast 04/10/2020

Theresa Freed [00:00:00] On this week's episode, you'll hear from Johnson County emergency experts who will tell you how the county keeps a close eye on the sky and the radar to make sure you're informed and ready to react if dangerous weather makes its way to the county. Also, hear from a community partner who will talk about the emergency notification system that's free to you and can help keep you and your families safe. Finally, we'll talk to trained storm spotters and the National Weather Service. Find out the right time to seek shelter.

Announcer [00:00:26] Whether you live in or just love, Johnson County, Kansas, JoCo on the Go has everything. Johnson County. Here's what's happening and what's coming up in the community. You call home.

Theresa Freed [00:00:40] Thanks for joining us for JoCo on the Go. I'm your host, Theresa Freed a Johnson County resident and employee of Johnson County Government. Spring in Kansas brings pleasant temperatures, but also an increased risk for tornadoes and other severe weather. Today we're talking with Johnson County Emergency Operations Trent Pittman and Kelly Fry, who's with WaterOne, a community utility partner. She's also a co-chair on the Notify JoCo Marketing Committee. That's our emergency notification system. Thank you both for being here.

Trent Pittman [00:01:07] Thank you.

Kelly Fry [00:01:08] Thanks for having us.

Theresa Freed [00:01:09] All right. Well, first off, Trent, when does severe weather season hit?

Trent Pittman [00:01:12] That's a great question. Traditionally, severe weather season starts around March 1st and continues through March, April, May and into June. We can get severe weather almost every month of the year in the Kansas City area. However, in December, January, early February, it's pretty rare.

Theresa Freed [00:01:29] OK. It seems like tornadoes had kind of a more limited amount of time. Is that right?

Trent Pittman [00:01:34] Yeah, that's that's correct. Mostly we focus on severe weather in the March, April, May and June timeframe before we start to hit the summertime period. You know, if you have the opportunity to run through that family emergency operations plan during any time of the year, we like to encourage people to do that.

Theresa Freed [00:01:51] So what does that look like? So, for example, I've got a very cluttered basement I need to start digging out, right? Yeah. Make sure there's a safe space to go to. Where is the safe space?

Trent Pittman [00:02:00] You know, we like to encourage people to get to the lowest level possible for a lot of homes around this area that does that. That includes a basement of some sort. But if a basement is not an option, an interior room with no windows or a few windows as possible is also encouraged on a main floor that can be a bathroom. Sometimes that's that's an interior closet. And if those aren't options, get into the bathroom and get into that bathtub and trying to cover yourself with blankets as much as possible are some of those best options.

Theresa Freed [00:02:30] All right. And can you kind of walk us through if we are expecting severe weather? It's in the forecast. What are the things we're doing here, even at the administration building in the Emergency Operations Center? What are we doing to get ready?

Trent Pittman [00:02:42] Yeah, this time of the year, we start monitoring those weather forecasts several days out in that four to five day time period. You can start to get the idea, especially monitoring some of the stuff from the Storm Prediction Center that severe weather is possible on any given day. We don't necessarily know what hazards or what time period or what the threats will be exactly. And sometimes that threat can diminish and sometimes it can increase as that day gets closer. It's really the day before severe weather is expected that we can start to focus in on what those particular hazards would be. And I mean, the severe wind over 60 miles an hour, large hail, all or even tornadoes. It's that day before time frame. We can really start to take notice and prepare for those events.

Theresa Freed [00:03:24] Okay. And the most recent tornado that we had in our area was the Linwood tornado. And that one, it felt like we had some good prep time.

Trent Pittman [00:03:32] Yeah, the Linwood was actually a tornado or an event that you could see coming from several days away. I believe the Storm Prediction Center first put out on their hazardous weather page that this could be this area could experience severe weather. It is six days out. So we kept watching that forecast and kept watching the National Weather Service refine what they expected to occur. And sometimes for many events, you see that that either increase in significance, maybe stay the same or even diminish. But it was this particular event that kept getting more and more hazardous, what they were expecting and what they were communicating to us. So by the time May 28 actually ended up rolling around, it didn't really catch anybody by surprise.

Theresa Freed [00:04:20] All right. And so, fortunately, most people were safe in their home ready when that hit. And there were some language used there that we haven't typically heard, which was tornado emergency, is that right?

Trent Pittman [00:04:32] That's correct, i believe that's the first one used in the Kansas City, the first tornado that had that tag to it in the Kansas City metro area.

Theresa Freed [00:04:37] Okay. I know there was some discussion in social media and other places. Just what exactly does that mean?

Trent Pittman [00:04:42] Yeah, you know, that's a confirmed dangerous tornado that's either and or moving into a well populated area. Fortunately, that's something we haven't had to deal with in this area all too often. But this this particular storm that May 28, the Lawrence-Linwood tornado, actually started in southwest rural Douglas County and continued just south of Lawrence and in fact, nicked the corners of Lawrence, went just north of Eudora into the Linwood area. It missed Johnson County by about 200 yards, is it? And at the closest point, it was well over a half mile wide.

Theresa Freed [00:05:18] Wow. That's that's amazing. And the recovery process was fairly lengthy. There was a fair bit of damage. And I know WaterOne had a part in helping with the recovery. Can you talk about that, Kelly?

Kelly Fry [00:05:30] Sure. I am so lucky that we literally had just gotten her mobile hydration station about six months before that and had some practice with it and knew how to use it. Part of the reason we wanted a mobile hydration station was for emergency responses. So we were so blessed to be able to offer all the workers out there and residents some fresh tap water while they were trying to kind of get a grasp on what happened and make sure that they were staying hydrated. And we were set up right next to the first aid folks. So they were kind of getting help with that and getting bottles of water. So it was good.

Theresa Freed [00:06:07] That was great. And there was a lot of good community collaboration with the recovery process, not just Johnson County, but other utilities and other entities all doing a part and helping residents in the area. So that was great. So just talking about the warning system for tornadoes, and other severe weather. There's some work that's been done on the siren activation system. Can you talk about that?

Trent Pittman [00:06:29] You know, we're hoping to, you know, increase the accuracy that we can alert people through the siren system. Right now, we have five zones. We can either activate all the sirens in the county at one time or we can activate them in one of five zones, either zone one and zone two or any combination thereof. We've looked at the possibility of increasing the number of zones in Johnson County. That way, we can alert less people who are outside of that particular tornado warning polygon. That's something we hope to implement as soon as possible.

Theresa Freed [00:07:06] OK. All right. In how how do we activate the sirens? At what point do we decide to do that?

Trent Pittman [00:07:11] Yeah. In Johnson County the sirens are only activated for tornadoes. There are several criteria that we can use to activate them. Primarily, it's when the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning. It will activate those zones which that tornado warning polygon touches. We can also activate the sirens when Johnson County storm spotters visually confirm that a tornado is on the ground. And in addition to that, we can also activate the sirens when public safety officials, such as trained firefighters and police officers alert us, usually via the radio. That one, that they have eyes on something like that.

Theresa Freed [00:07:49] All right. And you mentioned these trained storm spotters and these are volunteers generally within the the community who have a passion for helping to keep people safe and also keeping an eye on storms. Can you kind of talk about that partnership with the county and then also how we helped train them?

Trent Pittman [00:08:05] Yeah. We're very fortunate to have such a strong group of well-trained storm spotters in Johnson County. We work pretty exclusively with a group called Johnson County ECS. During any severe weather activations. We actually bring at least two what they call net controllers. That's two amateur radio operators into the EOC with us. And they coordinate with a group of spotters who go out to certain locations and sit and wait and report back what they see at those locations. Those individuals aren't storm chasers who are out chasing a storm, driving on the roads while trying to handle a different number of other tasks. Those are trained storm spotters who go out to a certain location and sit and report back what they see. They'll use amateur radio equipment to report that information back to those net controllers who are in the emergency operations center with us and they will communicate what they see to the duty officers.

Theresa Freed [00:09:04] All right. And this winter, we held a storm spotter training session at our administration building that was led by Johnson County and the National Weather Service. Hear now from some of the storm spotters and trainers at that event.

Bill Geary [00:09:15] My name is Bill Geary. I worked for the National Weather Service for 38 years. I just retired in January and so I am a meteorologist and I was a ham radio operator for years and years. So it just was a natural, natural fit.

Theresa Freed [00:09:32] OK. And can you tell me about recent storms that you've been involved in?

Bill Geary [00:09:37] I was out, for example, in the May storm sitting at one of our locations and listened to the traffic. I was too far away to actually see it, but it was really good to hear the members of our ECS group, which is Emergency Communication Service, reporting it in. And it was amazing to me how calm, especially the the first one. It's all coming into Douglas County. You would think he was just ordering a hamburger at McDonald's. When he saw it just as calm, really good detail. And that was, of course, relayed to the National Weather Service.

Theresa Freed [00:10:12] And you tell me a little bit about the training that they're going through.

Bill Geary [00:10:16] Well, the idea here is to help the spotters to look at the cloud, the clouds, the thunderstorms, and to recognize the different features and also where they are in relationship to the thunderstorm and what is is the best location to be. And be aware as the thunderstorms move and the direction are moving, the structure so that not only can they keep themselves safe, but also they can report accurately what they're actually viewing as to whether it's say a funnel cloud, a wall cloud, or also the if they start seeing like we're seeing tonight, if it's heading right for their area, they are told actually to don't wait, leave the area and then tell in that control that, hey, we had to abandon because the weather was getting too bad. So that's all part of the training to help keep them safe as well as reporting that information to the weather service through through emergency management.

Theresa Freed [00:11:10] So how important is it to have this storm spotters throughout when something happens?

Bill Geary [00:11:15] Well, one thing about the radar is the radar, because the earth is not flat as the beam leaves the radar at Pleasant Hill. It gets higher and higher above the earth's surface. So therefore, the sampling that we're that they're seeing in the radar is higher above the ground. And where they're actually looking for the circulation for the tornado is actually lower. So the radar beam is overshooting what they're concerned with. So this helps them tie what they're seeing in the higher levels of the radar with ground truth. So by putting it together and studies have actually shown that when the weather service can put that into their statements, for example, that a spotter has actually spotted something rather than just saying radar-indicated that people were more apt to take action, like seek shelter rather than just pacifying. This came out of the Joplin experience when the warning has been stepped up now and the warnings because of being able to put more actual ground truth into the reports by using the spotters.

Theresa Freed [00:12:21] And so and what's the thrill in all of this?

Bill Geary [00:12:25] I've just always been interested in weather since I was in second grade. And it's this you know, nature is so great. You see those these storms form and most the time hopefully they're they're not severe, but just being able to watch them. But, you know, you realize that because we do live in the in this part of the country where we do have a severe weather, tornado alley, you do want to be sure that people take shelter when needed. And this really helps emergency management know when to also tell the weather service. Also when to sound the sirens, when the tornado warning comes out. Help keep people safe in the county.

Andy Bailey [00:13:04] Andy Bailey, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service.

Theresa Freed [00:13:08] Ok and what are we doing here tonight?

Andy Bailey [00:13:09] We're training a lot of volunteer storm spotters. Johnson County has always had a pretty big cadre of very well-trained spotters. They require them to get an annual refresher training. And this is our first spotter training course of the year where we really teach them how to prepare themselves every day to deal with the severe weather, anticipate what may be happening later in the day. And then once those storms develop, really helping them understand what parts of the storm to look at, to determine if the storm is becoming dangerous or not.

Theresa Freed [00:13:36] Ok and how many did we have here today do you know?

Andy Bailey [00:13:40] Around 50 storm spotters were here this evening.

Theresa Freed [00:13:42] And so how much training is there? A certain number of hours they have to go through before they're certified?

Andy Bailey [00:13:47] Well, I know and Johnson County is different than most places. In addition to this training, they have a lot of other communications training. They're all ham radio operators. So they've studied probably a couple of dozen hours just to get their amateur radio license. So here they are, very well trained.

Theresa Freed [00:14:02] And how confident do you feel in their training in terms of when there's an actual storm getting that information from them in terms, you know, how accurate are they?

Andy Bailey [00:14:10] Well, I'd say they're they're they're as accurate as anyone as far as observing the storm reporting in the dangerous parts of the storm. Many of them have been doing it for several, you know, dozens of years. And so when they come back to the training every year, they usually pick up a little bit more. And just that practice and repetition really helps makes the reports that much better.

Theresa Freed [00:14:31] And it's volunteer. So what's the appeal here?

Andy Bailey [00:14:35] I think it's well, first of all, a lot of people are are weather enthusiasts fascinated by storms. This is a way they can take maybe some an interest of theirs and give back to the community and help keep their community prepared and safe as the storms roll in.

Theresa Freed [00:14:48] Okay. And so have some of these individuals been involved in actual tornadoes and help save lives and what's the impact there?

Andy Bailey [00:14:56] Well, certainly, you know, in Johnson County here, we're no stranger to tornadoes, we've had tornadoes come through at least every couple of years, we have another tornado come through, it seems like. There there are reports have helped us issue better warnings, more timely warnings which then enable people to seek shelter and then get out of the harm's way.

Theresa Freed [00:15:15] Anything else to say about this? Is there a way somebody can get started to develop these these skills?

Andy Bailey [00:15:22] These storm spotter classes are not open to the public. They're only open to the volunteers in each individual county. So if people want to get involved with storm spotting, the best thing they could do would be to contact the emergency manager, find out if they need more volunteers and what the criteria and training protocol looks like to see if they want to make that kind of commitment.

Theresa Freed [00:15:39] So obviously, this this training is very valuable and you rely on the volunteers to communicate from the field what's happening. So can you talk about, for example, the most recent tornado that we had in the area? What were storm spotters doing and how is that information getting communicated?

Andy Bailey [00:15:56] Storm spotters play a vital role in the whole warning process. So in the most recent tornado in May, we had spotters lined up all the way through Douglas and Johnson counties, and they were some of the first ones to be able to identify the rotation in a broad sense around the storm, because there's very rain wrapped, very challenging. So the normal person may not really be able to know what they're looking at, but the educated storm spotters with storm spotter training were able to identify exactly what they were looking at. See the tornado and its wind field and report back to dispatch emergency management that then relayed that to the National Weather Service and local media.

Theresa Freed [00:16:31] OK. And so what kind of time does that buy us in terms of getting people to safety?

Andy Bailey [00:16:35] Right. So one of the big things is when storm spotters identify a tornado, it allows the ground truth and people are more motivated to take shelter when they know the event is actually happening. We might issue a tornado warning. But when a storm spotter can also say, yes, it's on the ground, it's heading northeast right to that community. People know that it's actually occurring and they're more likely to take shelter. You know, you get to serve your community, being able to be a storm spotter. You serve your community well from all sorts of hazards, whether it be even winter weather, severe weather. You are one of the first people on the frontlines to tell people what's happening right there on the ground and help people get to safety.

Theresa Freed [00:17:13] So we have sirens, storm spotters, and then we also have another tool to alert residents to dangerous weather. Can you guys talk about Notify JoCo?

Kelly Fry [00:17:22] Sure. Notify JoCo is a county wide emergency alert system and WaterOne actually partnered with the county it's been a while back. We had a huge transmission main break and we realized we really needed some kind of centralized notification system. So we partnered with the county and did some research and ended up using a system called EverBridge. That was an easy way for residents to sign up for alerts via text, email, phone call so they could get an immediate alert about a water outage and any other kind of alert that they wanted to setup.

Theresa Freed [00:17:55] All right. And in March, we tested that notification system. So our listeners may have received a text or phone call that you mentioned there. How did that test go?

Trent Pittman [00:18:04] That test was very successful. We were able to notify over 640,000 contacts over the course of the test.

Theresa Freed [00:18:12] OK. And so people who've received a call, what did that sound like?

Trent Pittman [00:18:17] We just had a voice message for people on the phone, just alerting them that this is the annual test of the Notify JoCo system and where they can receive more information on the system.

Theresa Freed [00:18:27] OK. And so in the event of an actual weather emergency, how does that happen? They receive a text and a phone call, and an email. If they sign up for all of those at the same time or how does that work?

Kelly Fry [00:18:38] So you can actually customize your alerts. When I first signed up for my personal account. I checked all those boxes. And very quickly I realized Kelly does not need to receive a phone call, e-mail and text. So you can kind of customize that based on which avenue you use more. For me, it's texting. So I turned the other ones off. But yeah, that's the great thing about the system and why we like it so much, because you can tag up to five locations. So I've got my kids school, my husband's work, my work, our house, and I can choose how to be notified.

Theresa Freed [00:19:08] OK. And we did receive a lot of people calling and asking about it. They hadn't heard of it before. So luckily we were able to get some people signed up for it as well on that test. So, again, you mentioned that you can hear about those those sorts of alerts affecting water, water supply or things like that. So what are all the different emergency alerts you can receive?

Kelly Fry [00:19:30] So there's weather related alerts. And then the different cities and our county can also put out traffic alerts. So if they know there's a parade going down, Metcalf, for instance, that would probably impact a lot of us. So they can include that in their alerts. They can put also event information like if there is a an event that's going to close down downtown Overland Park, then they can notify folks about that and then water outage alerts and then we just added weather alerts to there as well. So you. And kind of see if there's any thunderstorms. Usually it would have just been extreme weather alerts. But now you can get some more detailed weather notifications on there.

Theresa Freed [00:20:08] OK. It's for a free service, which is is of course, a great selling point for many people. But it's also it's not constant text messages every day telling you different things are happening. It's going to be in those kind of rare instances, right? OK. That's great. And so, most importantly, how did people get signed up for that?

Kelly Fry [00:20:25] Yes. So that's always the tricky with the language when you're trying to get people to sign up for a free system because you have to actually go sign up. So we want each person to go and set up their own profile. You can do that two ways. You can go to NotifyJoCo.org and sign up and create your profile there. Again, because we want you to set up those locations to get outage information. And you can also just shoot a quick text, notifyjoco all one word to 888777.

Theresa Freed [00:20:56] Ok. Doesn't get easier than that. All right. Well, thank you both for being here today.

Announcer [00:21:00] You just heard JoCo on the Go. Join us next time for more everything Johnson County. Have a topic you want to discuss? We want to hear from you. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter at JoCoGov. For more on this podcast, visit jocogov.org/podcast. Thanks for listening.