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Sounding the sirens of summer

Mahoning Valley leaders focus on fast alerts of tornadoes, dangerous storms

Submitted photo.... Third graders in the summer learning and enrichment program at Kirkmere Elementary School in Youngstown learn about tornadoes and all things weather. Teachers Dena Esmail, foreground, and Kim Rose talked to the class about the power and severity of tornadoes using a sugar ice cream cone as the funnel cloud.

You might often hear weather warning sirens sounding though there’s not a cloud in the sky.

That’s because the systems in the Mahoning Valley are tested regularly so that when skies go black, the sirens work to alert residents of real danger.

It’s better to be safe than sorry, officials at the controls say.

Much better, as the past has shown us.

TORNADO TIME

Mahoning County has not had the type of tornado that devastated portions of Trumbull County in 1985, but tornadoes do happen here, like the one that hit the Ellsworth-Canfield area July 8, 2014, damaging 10 homes on its eastward march.

Rich Tribus of Williamsburg Road in Canfield said he received weather alerts on his phone about 15 minutes before that storm knocked down 25 to 30 trees on his property.

“The last one I got was 15 minutes before — and said thunderstorm warning,” he recalled.

Dennis O’Hara, director of the Mahoning County Emergency Management Agency, said the 52 tornado sirens in Mahoning County, which his agency maintains, are an important tool in alerting residents to approaching emergencies. But emergency alerts by text, phone or email are also important.

On the Mahoning County Emergency Management website, people can sign up for a free system for their phone or email that alerts them to emergencies such as tornado warnings. It is the same system Youngstown State University uses, but Mahoning County’s alert system is called Ready Mahoning alerts.

“Every tool to notify the public is valuable,” O’Hara said.

Ready Mahoning alerts do not eliminate the need for sirens, but they may be better at alerting someone indoors than a siren.

“The siren is still a tool to notify the public of an emergency. That’s why we don’t want to eliminate them,” he said.

Another tool is a weather-alert radio, which sends information directly from the National Weather Service. These are available for purchase from many retailers.

The 2014 Ellsworth-Canfield tornado was an EF1, the next-to smallest type of tornado. It hit around 2:15 p.m. and had estimated winds of 90 mph and a maximum path width of 800 yards. It traveled about 5 miles, according to the National Weather Service in Cleveland.

It began near the St. Paul Monastery on U.S. Route 224 in Ellsworth Township, moving northeast and ended near South Raccoon and Williamsburg roads in the northeast corner of Canfield Township.

O’Hara said a couple of small tornadoes have hit Mahoning County since he started working for the agency 14 years ago, including the 2014 twister.

“Thankfully we have not had any injuries from them, but we have had a couple of them,” he said. “And we also had some straight-line wind damage that causes what looks like tornado damage, but it is usually a microburst or a small cell that causes a lot of damage in a particular location.

“Thankfully we have not had the severity of the 1985 tornado. Nobody is immune to them. We can have them 12 months a year anywhere in Ohio.”

TESTING AND MAINTENANCE

Mahoning County’s emergency sirens are tested nearly every Saturday at noon for one minute. The tests help EMA identify sirens not working properly.

“They may have some speakers that have gone out or the batteries have died. All of our sirens are operated on batteries. They are charged on a trickle charge. This way, in the event of a power outage, they can still operate. They are controlled by radio,” he said.

“We test 12 months out of the year so we can keep them in regular working order,” he said.

The current contract to maintain the sirens is with B&J Electric of Poland. Most of the repair work is done by a person on a ladder, O’Hara said.

“Over the years we have had some (sirens) that have been hit by lightning,” he said. “That does a number on them,” but many times all a siren needs to start working again is a reset from a technician.

Mahoning County has purchased its sirens in “batches” over the years, starting with old civil defense sirens from the Cold War era starting in the 1950s.

The newer ones were purchased starting in the 1990s. The newest ones are from 2014. The cost to install the newest siren was a little more than $25,000 in 2014 when one was installed on the Mahoning County jail.

The one atop Youngstown City Hall was installed as a civil defense siren.

He said his agency placed a new one on top of the jail so that if the one on city hall stops working, there will be another one nearby to provide the warning.

“We cannot get parts anymore for the one on the city hall because it’s an old, old trumpet siren. But it’s still operational so it’s still being utilized.”

All 88 counties in Ohio handle operation and maintenance of emergency sirens in their own way, O’Hara said.

Mahoning County has a countywide system. It means that if the National Weather Service in Cleveland issues a tornado warning, the warning automatically sets off the 52 sirens in Mahoning County, O’Hara said. The same is true for Saturday test sirens.

But there also is a way to set off the sirens manually “in the event that there is an issue with our equipment,” O’Hara said.

O’Hara said the sirens have always been tested on Saturday at noon since he was growing up in Mahoning County, but he’s aware that in other counties the siren tests take place on a weekday.

O’Hara said he thinks Saturdays are a good day to test because a lot of people are at home and possibly outdoors.

TRUMBULL COUNTY

In Trumbull County, all county sirens are activated no matter where a funnel cloud or tornado is spotted. It’s better to be safe than sorry, officials maintain.

The county has a wicked storm past, from a January F-1 tornado that ripped through a Bazetta cemetery in 2019, to the infamous May 31, 1985, tornado through Niles and Newton Falls, and other communities, that killed several people and destroyed property.

That storm was part of one of the deadliest storm systems in the United States, generating 43 tornadoes and dangerous thunderstorms in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario and killing 89 people, according to the National Weather Service.

In Trumbull County, 911 dispatchers reading radar, officers and firefighters who act as witnesses on the ground, news meteorologists and weather officials at the NWS work together to positively identify troublesome funnel clouds in troublesome systems and determine when to sound an alert.

“There are times when the NWS can’t tell what is going on below the cloud cover or rain, but the officers on the ground can,” said Dale Hahne, a supervisor at the 911 center. “It happens really quickly.”

Dispatchers in the center track the radar and communicate with NWS officials, Hahne said. Sometimes the center has enough information to issue an alert before the NWS does, he said. And sometimes, the twisters come in and out of existence so fast there isn’t time to sound the alarms, he said.

The county’s sirens sound, during an emergency, for three minutes, and then pause for seven in a cycle that lasts as long as the warning is in play.

During the time, dispatchers keep an eye on the path of the storm and take phone calls from people reporting damage or who saw a funnel cloud form or touch down. If the NWS issues an alert, they contact the county to ensure it was received, Hahne said. The dispatchers assess damage, identify resources that are needed and send first responders to handle storm damage, he said.

Trumbull County has 90 sirens, but breaks them into three categories. There are 23 “tier one” sirens received through emergency management grants. The 911 center activates all of the sirens with one tone and monitors the systems to ensure they work, testing them at noon on the first Saturday of the month. The communities are responsible for maintaining the sirens.

There are also 33 “tier two” sirens that are owned and maintained by local communities that are not compatible with the 911 activation module and are activated with multiple tones on multiple towers, taking one minute and 20 seconds to activate them all. The 911 center does not receive information if the siren fails.

And, there are 34 sirens that are activated by the communities where they are placed. The 911 center receives no information about the siren’s function.

Efforts are underway to update those second and third tier sirens, said Steve Craiger, assistant fire chief at the Bristol Fire Department. By the fall, Craiger said a committee hopes to know what equipment the county needs and how much it will cost. From there, the plan is to apply for grants.

“The system now does work, but it is getting older than we like and it does need to be replaced and repaired more,” he said.

rfox@tribtoday.com

erunyan@vindy.com

Sounding the sirens of summer

You might often hear weather warning sirens sounding, though there’s not a cloud in the sky.

That’s because the systems in the Mahoning Valley are tested regularly so that when skies go black, the sirens work to alert residents of real danger.

It’s better to be safe than sorry, officials at the controls say.

Much better, as the past has shown us.

Mahoning County has not had the type of tornado that devastated portions of Trumbull County in 1985, but tornadoes do happen here, like the one that hit the Ellsworth-Canfield area July 8, 2014, damaging 10 homes on its eastward march.

Rich Tribus of Williamsburg Road in Canfield said he received weather alerts on his phone about 15 minutes before that storm knocked down 25 to 30 trees on his property.

“The last one I got was 15 minutes before — and said thunderstorm warning,” he recalled.

Dennis O’Hara, director of the Mahoning County Emergency Management Agency, said the 52 tornado sirens in Mahoning County, which his agency maintains, are an important tool in alerting residents to approaching emergencies. But emergency alerts by text, phone or email are also important.

Read more in Sunday’s Vindicator.

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