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Franklin County Wants More Than Tornado Sirens To Warn Of Threats

Spring brings the threat of tornadoes and floods. Franklin County officials want to move beyond sirens to notify residents of emergencies. They want to use mobile phones. You'd think it would be easily accomplished. But it's not. On a week-day morning, Scott Surovjak starts his day, coffee in hand, he waits for the High Street bus near his Short North home. He rarely thinks about emergency threats So, if there was an imminent tornado or a chemical spill, you feel assured you'd get the message? "Normally at that point I'm listening for sirens. I don't know that I really have that much information aside from sticking my ear out at that point," says Surovjak. Running those sirens, and alerting the public is the responsibility of Frankiln County Emergency Management Agency head Mike Pannell. He says says the current county system has limits. It hinges on an e-mail chain to mayors and managers in Franklin County's 42 separate jurisdictions. So, it's possible some county residents will not get word in time to respond to serious threats.

"It'd be so good to be able to tell the citizens of Franklin County about whether it's a tornado, it's a hazmat spill, it's a terrorism incident, flash flood, 24-seven. And right now we don't have that capability," says Pannell.

Check your phone The answer may sit in your pocket or your purse. Franklin County officials want to send alerts to mobile phones and through social media. During the next few months, the county Emergency Management and Homeland Security agency will pay Battelle $150,000 to recommend a system that integrates mobile phones into its Emergency Notification System. "Well, we'd like to have a mass notification system for Franklin County tomorrow," says Pannell. Parnell adds that while tornadoes are the biggest threat to Franklin County, other threats include dam breaks on waterways that run through the city, industrial accidents and terrorism. Mobile phone companies currently pass-through alerts for widespread weather emergencies like blizzards or an outbreak of severe thunderstorm storms. County Emergency Notification System But, Pannell says any new system would take advantage of digital technology to distribute local notices quicker and to more county residents. Still there will be limitations. "In no way are we covering every single I-phone in Franklin County which is what our ultimate result would like to be because that's what most people get their information from these days, that thing they carry in their pocket. Pannell envisions an opt-in system. People can go to the agency's website and choose to be notified of tornado warnings for instance, but not tornado watches. On the distribution side for example, Worthington could notify its residents of a potential threat from a gas leak or a chemical spill in the Olentangy River. Still it's the responsibility of smart phone users to opt-in, and Mark Piskorowski of Columbus likely will pass.

"Um, I just don't like to get things on my phone and so that's why I decided not to and so far the system works for me," says Piskorowski.

The EMA's Pannell says he wants the new alert system in place by early 2015.