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Did county’s weather warning system work?

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By Jamie Baker-Nantz

Those weren’t just high, strong winds that ripped through Grant County on April 24, but tornadoes that touched down in two confirmed locations.

The first, classified as an EF-O touched down, in Folsom around 2:59 p.m. This tornado had wind speeds up to 75 miles per hour.

According to the National Weather Service, a tornado, with wind speeds around 90 miles per hour touched down around  3:10 p.m. on Greenville Road, east of Dry Ridge. The twister stayed on the ground for about five minutes continuing into Pendleton County, on Ky. 467, east of Knoxville.

A third tornado touched down in Kenton County in Visalia around 3:14 p.m. and had maximum speeds up to 95 miles per hour.

How do Grant County residents know if a tornado is approaching?

Grant County has a reverse 911 system that has been in place since July 2009.  Anyone with a home (landline) phone is automatically entered into the system and will receive a phone call anytime there is a tornado warning for Grant County or weather forecasters have issued a tornado watch with a thunderstorm warning.

For residents wanting notification by cell phone or by e-mail, they must register their information with the county.

While the tornadoes touched down in Grant County around 3 p.m. April 24, some residents didn’t receive the warning call until 30 minutes after the storm had passed.

For Jerry Keithley, communications supervisor at Kentucky State Police Post 6 in Dry Ridge, this is not surprising.

“You’re talking a fast moving storm and 9,000 phone calls that go out when we use the emergency calling system,” Keithley said.

Keithley or his designee are the only ones who can activate the alert. Since the emergency alert system went active, he said it’s only been used twice for an actual emergency and one time it didn’t work.

“I looked into it but could not determine why the calls didn’t go out that one time,” he said.

The emergency alert system sends 50 to 60 calls per minute. Keithley said the numbers are called in number order, so there’s no priority to them.

Keithley said on April 24, the KSP dispatch center was notified by the NWS of the tornado warning “a couple of minutes before the first call went out.”  According to dispatch logs, the alert message began at 3:08 p.m. and all numbers were called by 3:48 p.m.

“There’s no system that’s going to make 9,000 calls in a few minutes,” Keithley said.

Grant County Judge-Executive Darrell Link used to work for the phone company and said no system can be expected to work so fast that all users are immediately notified.

“There’s a lot that goes into a calling system like this,” Link said. “It starts with a call and if that phone line is busy, it will keep ringing and the longer it rings the longer it takes for it to go to the next call.”

Link said he received notification on his cell phone and by e-mail much earlier than on his home phone.

Relying on the emergency phone system isn’t the only way residents can stay informed about inclement weather.

A weather radio was made available to every household in Grant County in July 2010 when the county received a $217,333 federal grant. Residents who did not pick up a radio can still do so at the Grant County Courthouse and at firehouses in the county.

“I’ve given out several since those storms last weekend,” said Link. “We can give people all the tools, but people still have to use them.”

Some residents complained the weather radios were not working, but they simply needed their batteries changed.

Keithley said KSP tests the weather sirens, which are located in heavily populated areas in the county, on the first Wednesday of the month.

“We usually get a few calls wondering why they are going off,” Keithley said. “But people need to realize if you live in a rural area or there’s a storm hitting, you’re probably not going to hear them.”

He said a common sense approach was necessary.

“Technology is great, but people can’t depend on it to completely take care of them. People still need to pay attention to the weather because these are just supplements and not a guarantee,” Keithley said.