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Advice from DPS: When severe weather hits, turn to radio or Web

One hundred and sixty-two phone calls in two hours—that's the number of inquiries the Department of Public Safety (DPS) Communications Center received during a severe weather alert in May. Most of the calls were not emergencies but inquiries about what to do, prompting a reminder from DPS about how to prepare for and respond to emergency weather conditions.

The National Weather Service (NWS), a department of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is the only agency in the country authorized to issue warnings during life-threatening weather situations. Once the NWS issues a weather warning, it is broadcast to media outlets, law enforcement agencies and many other distribution sources.

The NWS definitions for severe weather conditions include: an approaching thunderstorm—a storm containing winds of 40 to 57 mph or hail a half-inch or larger; a severe thunderstorm—a storm that produces tornadoes, hail larger than three-quarters of an inch or winds of more than 58 mph; and a tornado—a violently rotating column of air in contact with the ground and extending from the base of a thunderstorm.

The NWS issues a weather watch when conditions are more favorable than usual for a particular hazard to develop and a weather warning when a weather hazard either is imminent or has been reported. A warning indicates the need to take action to protect life and property, according to NWS definitions.

In Ann Arbor, the city Office of Emergency Management activates outdoor warning sirens for severe weather only when a tornado warning has been issued or when there is a significant storm with winds greater than 75 mph in which the winds are causing structural damage. The sirens will sound for three minutes and are intended to alert people outside that they should take cover immediately. Additionally, the city activates the sirens in the event of major terrorist attacks or hazardous materials spills that are life-threatening to the community.

"Sirens will not sound for an 'all clear,'" says Lucy Teets, the city's assistant emergency manager. "Instead, community members are encouraged to listen to one of three radio stations that have been designated as the local emergency stations, turn on cable channel 16 for detailed information regarding the emergency, or go to one of many weather Web sites [see box for specifics]. Also, we encourage people to purchase weather radios that will sound an alert for severe weather issues."

When the NWS issues thunderstorm or tornado warnings, DPS communications staff will broadcast the information via the University's two-way facilities radios and make telephone calls to several additional departments. A message will be sent to several e-mail groups, including facilities managers.

The Health System has specific plans and procedures to follow for weather emergencies, including for patient care, as outlined in its Emergency Management Plan. A Code W-1 informs patients, visitors and staff that a tornado watch has been issued and to prepare for possible relocation. A Code W-2 is issued for a tornado warning, during which many hospital patients may be moved to safer locations.

General tornado safety rules are listed in the U-M Emergency Procedures flipcharts posted in campus employee lounges, laboratory hallways and other bulletin boards. The flipchart also can be viewed on DPS's Web site at Departments are encouraged to develop and communicate emergency plans specific to their building or location. DPS can assist in developing such plans.

"Unless police, fire or paramedic assistance is needed, we ask that members of the campus community avoid tying up emergency lines that need to be clear for people who are in urgent need of police, fire or medical help," says William Bess, director of DPS. "During weather emergencies, use good common sense, remain calm, and move away from windows and other exposed areas."

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