Monday, March 12, 2001

Airborne danger alert

Soon, weather radios here can sound alarm

By Walt Schaefer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        By month's end, Hamilton County will become the first in the Tristate - and Ohio - with the ability to use in-home weather radios to alert residents of a life-threatening hazardous materials spill.

        The warning system is the latest advance in notifying people — especially those in industrial areas like the Mill Creek Valley — of chemical emergencies.

        The county also would sound outdoor warning sirens, which can be activated in specific areas or countywide, depending on the emergency.

        An agreement between the Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency (HCEMA) and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which operates the National Weather Service, is expected to be approved by March 20.

        “It is a state pilot project for Hamilton County, and if it works as well as we expect, the plan will become available to other counties throughout the state of Ohio,” said Charlie Perry, commander of Greater Cincinnati's hazardous materials (HAZMAT) response team.

        Don Maccarone, director of HCEMA, said he expects the system would be used only in rare circumstances.

        Emergency officials explained how the NOAA system will work:

        The fire chief at the scene will notify the Hamilton County Communications Center of the HAZMAT emergency and its location, and request the NOAA radio alert be sounded. (Only fire chiefs are empowered to launch the warning.) The communications center will notify NOAA's regional base in Wilmington, which will broadcast the alert.

        The warning signal will sound on all radios programmed to pick up alerts in Hamilton County.

        It will be followed by a brief statement providing the location or jurisdiction of the HAZMAT release with instructions to tune to television or radio for additional information.

        Listeners could be advised to close windows and doors, shut off air conditioners and stay inside or, in extreme cases, to evacuate.

        The radio warning plan came about in part to serendipity — and because of one of Mr. Perry's most frightening experiences.

        In 1997, Mr. Perry helped warn residents of Pleasant Ridge about an accidental release of oleum at the Hilton Davis plant. Oleum — used to make food coloring — can cause eye and lung irritation.

        “Our biggest issue was how to notify residents,” Mr. Perry said. “We didn't have enough manpower to go door to door as far as we wanted, and people opened doors to possible fumes. We sounded sirens (countywide) ... and we caught hell” for alarming people far from the scene who were not affected.

        “It could have been much worse with a larger incident and there had to be a better way,” Mr. Perry said. “I was looking at the instruction sheet on a new weather radio ... and there it was.”

        Weather radios, he discovered, are programmed to warn of HAZMAT threats, but that capability is little used nationwide. Regionally, the radios warned only of weather emergencies.

        So Mr. Perry, whose team covers nine Tristate counties, contacted NOAA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the regional office in Wilmington to develop the plan.

        Weather radios have become increasingly popular in the area since the April 1999 tornado that heavily damaged northeastern Hamilton County. They cost $30 to $70, said Mr. Perry, a retired Cincinnati Fire Division district chief, and are available at most electronics stores.

        Mary Jo Parker, warning coordination meteorologist for NOAA's Wilmington office, said initially “we had security concerns. We wanted to make sure we did not receive false information. We worked closely with the HCEMA to develop the procedures to be used in the county.”

        “I would expect Hamilton County's to be used as the template for other counties in Ohio who want to do this,” Ms. Parker said.

        She anticipates Ohio's heavily populated counties and those home to industry using hazardous materials likely will move to adopt plans.


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