BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - When an EF3 tornado hit Fultondale in January, some of the homeowners had less than a 10 minute heads-up.
“When the tornado hit Fultondale, it was an 8 minute notice tornado,” said Jefferson County’s EMA Director James Coker. “Not a lot of warning because it just spun up right there to the west of Fultondale.”
But in those 8 minutes Jefferson County’s emergency notification system sent out a warning to 50,000 people inside the National Weather Service warning polygon, and more than 4,000 confirmed they got it.
“I think everybody else was probably seeking shelter,” Coker said.
Coker called the county’s system the best warning tool in his toolbox, but now he wants to see every Alabamian benefit from something like it.
“Many of the counties in western Alabama don’t have anything like this,” Coker warned. “A statewide warning system would allow warnings to progress across the state. These recent long path tornadoes are a great example. They move from county to county---these warnings need to move from county to county.”
The state EMA estimates only about half of Alabama counties have an automatic emergency notification system like Jefferson County’s (St. Clair, Shelby, and Tuscaloosa counties all use the same vendor as Jefferson County). The one state EMA director Brian Hastings envisions would be a 2-way communication system that would not only send alerts to any of your devices about weather, it could customize those alerts based on where your smart device is at the time, like if you’re about to go canoeing in a polluted creek.
“You’d automatically have something pop up on your phone to say ‘hey you’re entering into an area that has this hazard’ or ‘you need this--for more information press here or call,” explained Alabama EMA Director Brian Hastings.
Hastings also wants the capability for you to report storm damage through this system so first responders have real-time information to act on.
The state legislature approved the idea of this last year, but left out the most important part, the money to build it.
Now Hastings is helping push for the $1-2 million needed to get started designing and buying this kind of system.
“I’m optimistic. It’s good for Alabama and our people. It’s just there’s so many priorities out there and so many things people are trying to get across the finish line---and there’s only so much time and so much money,” explained Hastings.
The state legislature did pass the new Safer Places Act last week. It allows private businesses or churches to apply to be designated as extra storm shelters during severe weather events, as long as they meet certain requirements.