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Could a text message save your life?

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Early this month, tornadoes struck a major metropolitan area with no loss of life. Forecasting helped but some also credit text messages for saving lives.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

On April 3, tornadoes carved a wide path of destruction through Texas causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Tractor-trailers were tossed into the air like toys and tens of thousands of people were left without power. Millions of people in and near the Dallas–Fort Worth Metropolitan Area were threatened by the furious displays of nature’s power — yet no one was killed and there were only a handful of injuries.

The forecasts for severe weather by the National Weather Service no doubt saved many lives, but some emergency managers in the area also credited something else for saving lives and keeping residents safe: the use of cell phone emergency text messages.

With the growing preponderance of cell phone and text message usage, could such a system save lives in Hillsborough County?

The answer, of course, isn’t entirely clear. The state of Texas experiences more than 150 tornadoes each year while such events are relatively rare in Hillsborough County. Hurricanes are an annual threat, however they tend to be forecasted out days into the future, thus lessening the need for instant emergency communication and increasing the need for personal preparedness on the part of residents. Strong and potentially dangerous thunderstorms, however, are a continuous threat, as are significant threats to specific neighborhoods due to ammonia pipeline leaks or even hazardous situations that may occur near railroad tracks, freeways, or at the Port of Tampa. A text message system could also be used to communicate post-disaster information if traditional telephone and cable lines are out assuming, of course, that cell towers are still available or are rapidly replaced.

When asked by The Observer News, Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe agreed that an emergency text messaging system could be used for any number of scenarios. He, in turn, asked Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Emergency Management Director Preston Cook about it.

“We currently use several methods in Hillsborough County to notify our citizens of emergencies or threatening situations,” Cook said. “We don’t rely on just one method of notification as you may realize that no one system is the ‘silver bullet’ as it were.”

Cook’s point was graphically proven earlier this month when a lightning strike disabled one Oklahoma town’s tornado siren system. As a tornado bore down on Woodward, OK, some of the community’s sirens remained silent. Five people were killed and 20 were injured in that storm.

According to Cook, NOAA Weather Radios remain among the best options for Hillsborough residents to be notified of weather emergencies. With hurricane season only weeks away, if you don’t already have one, now is the time to get one.

“Currently we work closely with the State of Florida’s Warning Point as well as the National Weather Service–Ruskin when it involves severe weather,” Cook continued. “Currently the NOAA Weather Radios are still highly recommended for notifications of severe weather. We also have a voice notification system that we use to notify citizens of threats or emergency situations. We do not have a text base notification system currently.”

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office maintains a reverse-911 system to notify residents in specific areas of everything from severe weather to emergency evacuations or missing persons. The system, however, is designed to work only with published telephone numbers. Those with unpublished numbers can call 813-247-8200 to make a request to be included in the system.

According to Cook, however, the county is currently reviewing emergency notification options, including a text messaging system, to determine if that would enhance their notification systems.

“I do agree that having the text feature for making notifications to our citizens is a great tool.”

Cook mentioned it was used successfully in a previous position he held outside of Hillsborough County.

County emergency managers and commissioners will decide if such a system is feasible and appropriate in Hillsborough County. In the past, such systems have been criticized for providing messages too late and for consuming large amounts of cellular bandwidth, thus potentially having an impact on people attempting to call 911 via cell phone. As more and more people turn to cell phones, however, and as cellular companies increase capacity, the latter issue, at least, might be muted. Advancing technology should answer the former.

“Cost is a major factor in utilizing this technology,” Cook said. “But we are looking for the best solution as our only goal is to insure our citizen’s safety.”

Commissioner Sharpe apparently agrees with that sentiment. Resources will always play a role in what can be done during an emergency, but the bottom line is always saving lives in Hillsborough County. Of course, it must always be something the county can afford and justify.

“I am open to [learning about] anything that will help save a life,” Sharpe said.

For information about the HCSO Reverse 911 Community Notification System, visit www.hcso.tampa.fl.us/A-Z-Directory/R/Reverse-911.aspx on the web. NOAA Weather Radios are available at most major retailers.

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