Archive for Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Failed generator, warning sirens among the hurdles after storm

March 14, 2006


A failed generator system and problems with the county's outdoor-warning sirens were some of the issues that complicated the emergency response in the hours after Sunday's storm hit.

Around 10 p.m. Sunday, emergency dispatchers had to revert to taking notes by hand after the new generator started dying at the Judicial & Law Enforcement Center, 111 E. 11th St.

The generator - bought by the county in 2004 with a $100,000 federal homeland-security grant - had been running all day after power went out in the downtown area.

Emergency Management Director Paula Phillips said after the generator had exhausted the fuel in a 100-gallon tank meant to provide energy for one day, a pump that provided more fuel from a 1,500-gallon underground tank didn't work.

"The pump went out. We don't know why, and the sensor board in the generator was not sensing that the day tank was low, and it wasn't able to communicate with the pump to go on," she said.

When the generator was finally able to communicate with the pump, the pump still didn't go on, she said.

"Like people, equipment fails, regardless of what you do," she said.

Communications glitch

As power in the building went out, dispatchers briefly were unable to communicate with Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical, and a computer-aided dispatching system slowly died, said Selma Southard, assistant director of emergency communication.

Eventually, the county rolled its phone lines over to the Kansas University dispatch center, she said.

Power was restored to the law enforcement building around 12:30 a.m. Monday, Phillips said.

March 12, 2006, Storm

Related content for the storm

  • A year later, microburst's sudden fury still evident (03-11-07)
  • EMS chief stays positive after injuries (03-11-07)
  • Also, after a second severe-thunderstorm warning hit the area around 1 p.m. Sunday, police from various local agencies reverted to driving through neighborhoods with sirens and lights flashing to warn people to seek shelter. Phillips said the reason was that, at the time, it wasn't clear whether the outdoor sirens would work should they be needed again.

    After the first storm, the sirens did not respond to radio signals sent out by a computer system that confirm the sirens are working, she said.

    "The sirens were not communicating back to us. We were unsure as to whether or not they were actually going to work," she said. "Later on we found out they were working the whole time. ... Because of the volatility of the situation, we could not afford to take the time to run a report and see what the report says."

    It turns out the outdoor sirens wouldn't have been used anyway because there was no tornado warning issued during the afternoon.

    Phillips said having officers driving through the area was not ideal.

    "In the past, this has always been a plan that had been discussed. It has never been implemented," she said. "When you're doing something like that you can't cover the entire population, so you aim for the most dense areas... We don't want to have to rely on that because, number one, it takes important resources from other potential critical needs, and not everyone could hear it. Do you really want people in severe weather going outdoors to listen?"

    Eudora Police Chief Greg Dahlem said he was in Lawrence helping with the response when he decided to ask his officers to start going around notifying people of the coming storm.

    "There was no major decision between the sheriff and the Lawrence chief and the fire chief or anything like that," he said. "I told my officers to go around telling people to make warnings."

    Silent sirens

    Phillips on Monday said she believed the agency acted properly by not sounding outdoor sirens prior to Sunday's storm, echoing comments the previous day by assistant director Teri Smith.

    "If we start activating the outdoor warning sirens every time there's a severe thunderstorm, we're going to be accused of crying wolf, and people will not pay attention," she said. "We do not have the luxury in severe thunderstorms of as much advance notice as, say, a hurricane. Severe thunderstorms are much like an earthquake. You just don't know exactly where in the storm cell or the system is going to be the most severe part."

    Phillips emphasized that sirens are only intended for people to hear them outdoors, and she said the best way to be prepared is to buy an "all-hazard" weather radio that broadcasts weather warnings.

    "They're the most effective personal-warning device," she said.

    TV notification

    An emergency notification system did not cut into Sunflower Broadband programming at any time during Sunday's storms. Patrick Knorr, general manager of Sunflower Broadband, said the company's system was only configured to receive automatic warnings for tornado warnings.

    "We received a complaint several years ago that it tripped too often. The way it was configured, it was set only for tornado warnings," he said on Monday. "We did change that because of this. I asked that it be changed a few minutes ago."

    Still, Knorr said, employees checked the cable system's logs and didn't see any records of severe thunderstorm warnings, which means even if the company had been set up to receive the warnings via the radio, they wouldn't have come through.

    The warnings that reach Sunflower Broadband are normally relayed automatically by FM radio stations in Topeka after the radio station is notified by the National Weather Service of a warning affecting Douglas County.

    "The bottom line is our system didn't log the message coming from the radio," Knorr said. "Our system didn't receive the alert either way."

    Knorr said there is a manual override option on the cable emergency alert system, but that it is too slow and cumbersome to operate in the event of a weather warning.

    "It would take too long to implement in an emergency," Knorr said.

    Rather, the manual system is mainly for testing purposes or long-term emergency situations. However, Sunday a power outage knocked the system off-line, leaving Sunflower Broadband without the option of using it even it wanted to.

    There were other problems early Sunday. One of the two radio stations, WIBW, didn't broadcast the alert message.

    A few years ago when emergency alerts were handled under a different system, the county's Emergency Operations Center would have had the ability to step in and issue the alert over cable stations themselves.

    But under the new automated system, the county has no say over the alerts that go out.

    "We're looking for ways to give the (county) some function," Knorr said. "The system doesn't have that today."

    Without county input, Sunflower Broadband was stuck, Knorr said, because it doesn't broadcast severe thunderstorm warnings even if it does pick up the radio signals.

    Knorr admitted that it was a problem Sunday, and said that the station would review policy to see what needs to be corrected.

    "Because of these events, we're evaluating all those things to see if we can do things better," he said.

    Traffic lights

    Many city traffic signals also were rendered inoperable by the storm. But by Monday afternoon, all the traffic signals in the city were working, with the exception of the light at 17th and Massachusetts Streets, said David Woosley, the city's traffic engineer.

    The storm kept emergency dispatchers unusually busy regardless of infrastructure glitches.

    Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical took about 150 calls between 8 a.m. Sunday and 8 a.m. Monday, compared with an average of 23 or 24 per day, Division Chief Bill Stark said. Most of the calls were because of power lines or damage to homes, and he said he didn't know of any severe injuries caused directly by the weather.

    Storm-related crime

    Four Kansas University students were arrested early Monday morning on suspicion of burglarizing two businesses in an area near downtown that was heavily damaged by storms. Police encountered the men in the 800 block of Pennsylvania Street and recovered a box of Kansas State University sweatshirts valued at $600 belonging to Sun Creations, 826 Pa., as well as more than $4,000 in power tools and other equipment belonging to Harris Construction, 720 E. Ninth St.


    verity 11 years, 7 months ago

    If all the energy spent on complaining, whining and moaning were spent on something constructive, we could probably end world poverty, stop global warming and have world peace. Oh, yes, and fix all that is wrong with Lawrence.

    Westar crews and clean up crews were out almost immediately---Westar worked throughout the night---they were at my house at 3:30 this morning.

    Immediately after the storm, my neighbors and I started clearing the street between us and the Law Enforcement Center of fallen branches so emergency vehicles could pass and a group of young people walking by rushed to help us.

    Yes, things went wrong and we received no warning, but the response afterwards was very fast and everybody was working together. Hopefully this will be a warning and things will be improved.

    And, yes, we are so very lucky that no one was killed. I for one am very grateful for that and that my heat is back on.

    pelliott 11 years, 7 months ago

    "Phillips on Monday said she believed the agency acted properly by not sounding outdoor sirens prior to Sunday's storm, echoing comments the previous day by assistant director Teri Smith."

    If they are satisfied with the procedure they should be FIRED. IF the point is to warn people who are outside and they don't do that , duh, who cares about the personnels emotions about their procedures and how they were right.. I am happy to hear sunflower reviewed its procedure and changed it in response. That is a learning curve. We were lucky about no deaths, but deaths weren't avoided because the sirens went off after the storm. Sirens should not be considered the first defense but they should be part of it and the people deciding to sound them should have the populace in mind not that their procedure can be justified. We took shelter, had stored water, flashlights and a plan. Everyone should have a plan and discuss it within the household. One should not run outside to secure patio furniture, like my neighbors did. But of course the sirens should be hit when the storm is severe, not just confirmed. Like at the homes, we check the flashlights before a storm. Too much equipment failure and too little backup plans. The bottom line is poor show and too much attitude about how they were right and not enough, we learned from this storm. It is a tiresome burecrat that cares more about their image than their work

    joedimmagio311 11 years, 7 months ago

    Dear LJ,

    Since you've done such a good job at pointing fingers around the city and playing gotcha journalism, would you mind sharing what role played in notifying the public of approaching threats of the storm? Is there a place on your site that alerted readers of the warnings, or even an e-mail alert?

    If not, why not? What is the point of instantaneous information and reader service via the Web if you do not do anything to proactively address consumer needs?


    I look forward to your response. Perhaps you could intimidate yourselves into being part of the solution rather than the so-called confusion.

    joedimmagio311 11 years, 7 months ago

    amen, avhjmlk. thank you for having your facts straight.

    joedimmagio311 11 years, 7 months ago

    haha those ku kids knew they couldn't get a dime for anything ku... maybe if you're so disatisfied with your leadership you should vote in those smarties or run yourselves and see how it feels to have anonymous jabs thrown at you, chicken-hawks.

    Michael Stanclift 11 years, 7 months ago

    "It looks like what we have here, is a failure to communicate."

    Seriously, all this money spent on homeland security and something actually happens and everything fails. Good to know in the event of something worse than what happened Sunday we're all basically screwed.

    Kiana Griffin 11 years, 7 months ago

    It sounds like Paula and the Emergency Management crew did a good job; they had multiple challanges thrown at them and they adapted and did what they could at the time. Now they are accessing what when wrong and planning how to address those issues if they come up again. The city did well too; our electricity was restored after only 4 hours - with the amount of damage in town, I was expecting a much longer outage. Good job Paula and good job City of Lawrence!

    If you (readers) want to do something useful other than complaining, check out the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) class that is offered in Lawrence ( You will learn basic disaster survival skillls and how to help those around you in a crisis.

    pelliott 11 years, 7 months ago

    I am certainly grateful that we didn't lose anyone and I am proud and grateful to my neighbors and government and utility persons that are helping our town recover. My postman was kind, handing me my mail, since the tree took my mailbox. To suggest that one isn't grateful that noone died or for the work that is going on to rebuild because one is critical of the procedure and operation of the sirens and communication is not logical or a fair remark.

    You might think of them as tornedo sirens but they are warning sirens applicable to a variety of events. I believe it may still include nuclear attack. Their primary function seems to be to warn persons outdoors but in reality they alert anyone who hears them to take cover or to turn to their emmergency information sources in a variety of situations. Or do you not take cover if they wake you in the night because your not outside. If we don't review policy to see how it might SAVE lives,to include being smart enough to look out the window and see trees blowing across the street to be a reason to blow the sirens. To not sound the siren because no official funnel was spotted is a policy that could stand being adjusted. To be satisfied they didn't blow the sirens before the roofs and tree flew is not an attitude I am proud of.

    badger 11 years, 7 months ago

    I tend to agree with MrsG. I think emergency personnel do the best they can and usually go well above what is asked or expected of them without complaining about a lack of resources.

    I look at the 'bottom line' as: no one was killed. No one (that I've heard of) was critically injured. No amount of warning could have averted the property damage, so what Lawrence received on Sunday morning was a very scary lesson that could have been a lot worse. Now, having gone through this experience and found realistically how much something as simple as a pump failure for a backup gasoline tank can affect matters hours after the critical phase of an emergency has ended, and learning about the failures of the emergency warning system (I'm pretty sure you can't blame anyone affiliated with the city for the fact that Sunflower received no warning from the National Weather Service, and wouldn't have done anything about it if they had), and faced the issue of 'well, what do we do later in the day if severe weather may have knocked out our warning system?', here's hoping that they use this experience as a learning experience.

    avhjmlk 11 years, 7 months ago

    ottr--the sirens are tested on a regular basis. Noon, the first Monday of the month, every month, unless the weather is bad, in which case they test the next Monday so as not to falsely indicate that the bad weather is actually severe weather.

    Secondly, the sirens aren't sounded unless a trained spotter sees a tornado. No trained spotters saw tornadoes on Sunday, and there is great speculation that those regular citizens who think they saw tornadoes probably actually saw flying gusts of dust or twirling columns of dust that weren't actually tornadoes.

    Thirdly, microbursts are nearly impossible to predict. They have nothing to do with direction and speed of wind rotation (like the stuff Katie Horner always tracks/talks about on channel 5 during bad weather). Check the graphic in any of the several articles that include it today.

    avhjmlk 11 years, 7 months ago

    And fourth, microbursts aren't tornadoes. Therefore, why would the tornado sirens sound for them?

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