City receives ‘StormReady’ certification

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February 10, 2009

12:49 AM

The City of Williamsburg is “StormReady.”

StormReady, an official certification given by the National Weather Service, is given to “communities [that] are better prepared to save lives from the onslaught of severe weather through better planning, education and awareness.”

There are currently 1,411 StormReady communities in the United States. In the state of Virginia, Williamsburg is one of only 20 communities and is the first in the Historic Triangle to become StormReady. The city was awarded the title Jan. 8.

In order to become StormReady, a community must participate in a rigorous grassroots approach to emergency notification systems.

The criteria include the establishment of a 24-hour warning point and emergency operations center, the capacity to relay severe weather warnings to the public in multiple ways, the creation of a system that monitors weather conditions locally, the promotion of public readiness through community seminars, and the development of a formal hazardous weather plan, which includes training severe weather spotters and holding emergency exercises.

City of Williamsburg Fire Chief T.K. “Buz” Weiler made the decision to pursue the StormReady certification after he attended a course on meteorology, followed by a class called SKYWARN.

SKYWARN is a program initiated in the early 1970s to promote a more cooperative effort between the National Weather Service and local communities.

The SKYWARN program enlists the help of “storm spotters” or local community residents to report tornado conditions to emergency services such as the fire or police departments.

“SKYWARN concentrates on reading the warning signs for severe, fast-moving events such as tornadoes. Tornadoes move [in] on a community so quickly that, unless one has a radio turned on, one may not know of it approaching,” Weiler said. “The idea, then, is to be able to read the signs that may indicate a [Tornado] Watch and sound the alert. From this point in my career, I felt I owed it to the community to be able to execute an early warning.”

It took Weiler and city officials over two years to qualify the city. There are now roughly 100 community members classified as members of the Neighborhood Response Team. Members report relevant information such as wind gusts and cloud formations.

To join the Williamsburg NRT, citizens must submit an application and pass a structured training course which culminates in a lengthy exercise that includes a mock structural collapse.

According to Weiler, Williamsburg’s certification process was not harder than any other StormReady community despite the fact that Williamsburg is a big tourist area and contains that the College of William and Mary.

“If anything, it may have been easier because of the concentration size of the ’burg,” Weiler said. “In any disaster in Williamsburg, we will attempt to go community wide starting with Colonial Williamsburg and William and Mary because of the concentrations of persons that may be outdoors ­— tourists, athletes, et cetera — then [move on] to individual neighborhoods.”

Weiler said he pursued the StormReady project because it could receive and distribute information in multiple ways.

“All public and a few private schools have systems to receive our warnings, we can [also] break into station WMBG and send script over TV 48,” Weiler said.

At the College, a similar approach is also used to report emergencies around campus. The College currently has two emergency systems in place — the Emergency Response Plan and the Continuity of Operations Plan.

According to Anna Martin, vice president of the Office of Administration, there is also an emergency notification system and building coordinators for each building.

The city will continue to work closely with the Williamsburg police and fire departments, and mandatory emergency evacuation plans will be required of all students by next year.

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