The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

May 25, 2013

Traditional help still a vital tool

Frank Sojak

JOHNSTOWN — Although social media and the Internet can be useful during emergencies, the traditional Emergency Alert System along with well-trained emergency responders using the latest technology and neighbors helping neighbors remain the best ways to handle emergencies, local officials said.

Ronald Springer, executive director of the Cambria County Department of Emergency Services, said that although the Internet, smartphones and social media have greatly increased the timeliness and the information for emergencies ranging from severe weather to terrorism, there are pitfalls.

The lack of accuracy at times with those new tools can provide new challenges to emergency managers and services in addition to those entities directly involved in the event.

“Incorrect or false information can be worse than limited or no information at all,” he said. “However, these new sources do provide for an overall increase in public warnings, preparedness and response.”

The county commissioners have approved a three-year upgrade for the Reverse 911 system that simplifies the activation process and provides for better communication with cellphone users, Springer said. The county is hoping to have the first upgrade installed by midsummer.

The Emergency Alert System, a national warning system activated in 1997 to replace the Emergency Broadcast System, is actively used, Springer said.

In addition to radio and television using the system, so does the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

That means that even during a power outage, a battery-powered NOAA radio, which can be bought for $50 at many stores, can be used to keep informed. The radios also have an alert feature that will activate at night to warn sleeping residents.

Springer said the latest technology has benefited emergency responders by enhancing communications and increasing situational awareness and response capability.

Information that once was accessible only by a printed manual or by a telephone call  now is available via the Internet almost immediately.

Residents often enhance the work of emergency responders. Although the police, fire and emergency medical service personnel spearhead many of the programs that teach public safety, residents are genuinely interested in helping and do so in ways such as watching waterways during storms and paying attention to suspicious persons, Springer said.

Richard B. Lohr, director of the Somerset County Department of Emergency Services, said that the Emergency Alert System and sirens are still a sufficient way to alert residents of an emergency.

Social media and the Internet plus amateur radio are good tools with which to keep people informed, Lohr said. Today’s technology also allows residents to get alerts around the clock.

The best way that residents can help emergency responders is by providing the best possible information when calling the 911 center, Lohr said.

It’s important for residents to be prepared for emergencies, he said.

“Learn to be self-sufficient for 48 to 72 hours until help may arrive,” he said. “Have the necessary supplies such as food, water, blankets, a flashlight, spare batteries and a portable radio in your emergency kit.”

Both Lohr and Anthony Kovacic, chief of the Johnstown Fire Department, said that in addition to emergencies such as flooding that have struck the area before, domestic terrorism, transportation accidents and major fires also are a threat.

Kovacic said a transportation emergency by road or rail has the opportunity to disrupt the community for an extended period of time with a chemical release or fire.

“It is important to follow the directions of emergency services to evacuate or shelter in place,” he said. “In August of 2011, western Pennsylvania felt the effects of an earthquake that originated in Virginia. Although a relatively mild incident in Johnstown, we realized the potential does exist for damage in a manner that we typically don’t see in our area.”

The area is not immune to the effects of terrorism and must stay prepared to mitigate issues that might threaten our community, he said.

He said they also continue to follow emerging issues that could jeopardize the community’s health. They receive updates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and meet with health care providers to ensure that they understand how to handle an outbreak.

Firefighters also are trained to handle all types of emergencies, and Johnstown police are constantly being trained in techniques to keep the public safe. The Johnstown/Richland Special Emergency Response Team likewise hones its skills to reduce threats to the community, he said.

Kovacic said that although the Emergency Alert System is a valuable tool, Johnstown continues to use a door-to-door effort to remove residents.

Rivers and streams are equipped with electronic monitors, which constantly display the water level. If a waterway is at flood stage, rescuers go to the area to evacuate residents, he said.

Firefighters also work closely with Johnstown police, he said.

“Often police officers will ensure that occupants are evacuated in adjacent buildings, while we begin suppression activities at fire scenes,” he said.

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.