An Eye On The Storm

City, County Beginning Violent-Weather Alerts In July

Posted: June 20, 2013

Senior communicators Christina Adams (right) and Kelly Royston keep the Emergency Communications Center humming Wednesday afternoon in Harrisonburg. Beginning next month, area residents will be able to receive texts or calls when the weather goes to extremes. (Photos by Nikki Fox / DN-R)
Senior communicator Tom Schroeder works at the Emergency Communications Center in Harrisonburg on Wednesday.
HARRISONBURG — Although tornadoes are relatively rare in the Shenandoah Valley, Harrisonburg and Rockingham County residents will soon have a new resource if the weather turns violent.

A new Emergency Alert System is slated to launch in July. It will send text messages or calls to mobile devices.

Residents can begin signing up for the service immediately at the website, www.hremergencyalert.com.

The system is a joint effort by the city and county. Alerts will be sent based on the address provided by the resident.

“It’s very important for people to be aware, especially when we have an unexpected storm,” said Harrisonburg Fire Chief Larry Shifflett. “We want to provide them with some advance warning.”

Chief Jeremy Holloway of Rockingham County Fire and Rescue echoed Shifflett’s remarks.

“We want the community to plan ahead and be prepared for an emergency,” Holloway said. “By signing up for this service and receiving the alert messages, community members will have more time to react or seek shelter during an emergency.”

The chiefs recommend that anyone who works or lives in Harrisonburg or Rockingham County sign up for the service.

Implementing The System

Shifflett said the idea for a system in the city began in 2008, when a resident approached Harrisonburg City Council about a tornado alert system.

At the time, the only two options the city had to notify residents about life-threatening weather were a reverse 911 system and an emergency alert system broadcast on television and radio.

In 2009, the city applied for a grant to research emergency alert systems, but the funding didn’t come through. City Council then hired a consultant to determine what method of alert system the city should use.

The consultant urged city officials not to pursue a siren system but rather opt for an electronic one that could send alerts to cellphones and other mobile devices.

“For the last couple of years, we’ve researched in cooperation with Rockingham County a few different systems,” Shifflett said.

The two localities opted to work with Geo-Comm, a Minnesota-based company that manages the alert website where residents can sign up.

The system will cost taxpayers about $4,000 to $8,000 per year.

The  Harrisonburg-Rockingham County Emergency Communications Center will generate the alerts.

Shifflett said the system will be reserved for life-threatening emergencies — tornadoes, flash floods and other high-intensity storms where there’s a substantial risk of injury or death.

Thunderstorms, though severe at times, are not what the system is designed for, officials say, unless they produce a tornado or other unusual weather phenomenon.

“We want [residents] to think, ‘Well, this doesn’t happen very often so I’d better pay attention,’” Shifflett said. “We don’t want to overuse it.”

Fixing The Bugs

Jim Junkins, director of the ECC, said there have been a few glitches with the website in the last few days, which he said is to be expected when launching a new site.

He said the plan was to launch the website well before the start of the alert system to give residents time to register and technicians time to work out any bugs.

Junkins said that one problem residents are having involves getting the system to accept their addresses.

The system uses U.S. Postal Service addresses. For example, residents of North Main Street in Harrisonburg would enter N. Main St., Junkins said.
    
Contact Pete DeLea at 574-6278 or pdelea@dnronline.com
 
How To Sign Up

To register for this service, go to www.hremergencyalert.com  and follow the step-by-step instructions. Be sure to share this information with a friend, relative, and neighbor. If you have questions or need assistance when registering, call the Harrisonburg Fire Department at 432-7703 or Rockingham County Fire and Rescue at 564-3175.



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