Leon County, Fla.
Located only 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico coastline, Leon County is made up of a 700 square-mile area. Home to more than 240,000 people, it is essential that the Leon County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management remains proactive when it comes to potential emergencies. For the past decade, Robby Powers has been the emergency management coordinator of Leon County. It is Powers’ responsibility to ensure the department is successful in the mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery for natural, technological, and manmade disasters.
“Our office must constantly be on its toes when it comes to disaster response and recovery,” said Powers. “This includes disaster response to severe weather events, hazardous materials incidents, fires, airplane crashes, and more. Since weather information plays an important role in the day-to-day operations of the command center, tracking conditions such as temperature, wind speed, rainfall amounts, and storm cell paths are vital to ensure timely evacuation and safety of area residents.”
In the case of an impending event, such as a hurricane, the Leon County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management is the coordinating agency responsible for notifying response teams and providing the resources and information these teams need for effective disaster mitigation, response and recovery.
“On a daily basis, our emergency management officials utilize several sources to obtain timely, accurate, and reliable weather information,” said Powers. “It’s important that we have access to an array of weather tracking methods, whether high tech or low tech, to obtain critical weather information. At one time, we could be monitoring several computers, listening and watching news reports, and receiving updates from human spotters on the ground. With a variety of dependable resources, such as local and national television and radio news, satellite and radar systems, and communications from neighboring counties – we have a number of systems in place to serve as back-ups to keep residents safe.”
During hurricane season, throughout the months of June to November, dangerous tropical storms and hurricanes are tracked using satellite, radar, and forecast maps that are housed in the main command center, located in Tallahassee, Fla. The command center serves as the county warning point for area public safety personnel.
“By maintaining a central location to house equipment and information as it arrives, we are able to better maintain efficiency while ensuring constant communication,” said Powers.
With a complete set of weather tracking tools, public safety officials are better prepared to assist citizens by pinpointing the exact location of the threat at hand. On a daily basis, Powers and his team of colleagues monitor the current and forecasted weather conditions using the advanced weather tracking system, scrolling the images from national, to local, to tropic. Powers and his team also utilize their advanced weather system to track storm bands.
“When a potential emergency, such as a severe storm, is headed our way, we are able to utilize our weather system’s storm tracking features,” said Powers. “During these severe weather events, we set up a group of images and monitor the Florida and local images only, as well as program our weather system to monitor the rainfall amount and storm cell paths. While we monitor The Weather Channel on television, the local weather is only displayed every so often, thus limiting current impact information.”
Up-to-date radar images, reliable storm tracking data and weather forecast maps provide Leon County with the ability to view exactly where the storms are heading. During hurricane season, dangerous tropical storms and hurricanes are tracked as they approach, so Leon County emergency management officials can notify emergency response teams in plenty of time to avert disaster and loss of life.
The advanced weather system also plays a key role in coordinating recovery and rescue efforts related to man-made disasters.
“When hazardous material spills occur,” said Powers, “wind speed and direction are monitored and then relayed to our response teams so they can anticipate the spread of materials and mitigate damage.
“The emergency operation center (EOC) closely monitors weather conditions that could affect the course of the substance, such as wind speed and direction. The EOC then conveys the information to the response teams so that they may anticipate the spread of materials and mitigate the damage.
“Through an efficient and timely EOC, emergency responders can take action by communicating the impending dangers to residents, before the chemical spill spreads.”
In March 2002, a heavy rainstorm moved through Leon County, dropping more than six inches of rain in a short time. Because Leon County water basins are bowl-shaped, heavy downpours have nowhere to go, which often results in flooding. During inclement weather, officials must monitor each of the several basins spread over the county.
“Through close monitoring of our radar, satellite systems and local newscasts in the EOC, we were able to track where the rain was falling and how much we were receiving – which enabled us to determine where flooding was occurring throughout the county,” said Powers.
“As a result, we were able to notify our emergency response crews quickly and direct them to specific problem areas such as washed out roads, fallen trees and objects, and other hazards to the public.”
After the situation is secured and residents are safe, Leon County emergency management officials prepare for a post-storm analysis to document the decisions made during the emergency, and build a rainfall history file for future flood management.
Public safety responders across the country are seeing the increased need to protect people, property and businesses from an array of threats. In a time when our world is susceptible to unexpected emergencies, whether manmade or natural, it is essential we have the right tools in place to best mitigate, respond to, and recover from the damage. With a centralized command and operation center, as well as access to a variety of high and low-tech information and communications resources, officials are able to coordinate well-organized responses, making recovery efforts as swift and efficient as possible.
Robert Gordon is chief executive officer for Meteorlogix, a company that delivers industry-specific weather management capabilities for its customers. More information can be found at www.meteorlogix.com.