Edited Version of June 17, 1998
EIIP Virtual Forum Panel Discussion

"FEMA Region IV Tornado Summit: A Safe Place to Go and Time to Get There"

Featured Panelists

John B. Copenhaver
Director, FEMA Region IV

Bryan Norcross
Director of Meteorology and News Anchor, WFOR-TV Channel 4, South Florida

Elaine W. Sexton
Director, 911 Emergency Management Agency, Hall County, Georgia

A. Todd Davison
Director, Mitigation Division, FEMA Region IV

The original transcript of the June 17, 1998 online Virtual Forum Panel Discussion is available on the EIIP Virtual Forum (http://www.emforum.org). The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. Typos were corrected, date/time/names attributed by the software to each were deleted but content of discussion, questions, and responses are as stated by each participant. Answers from the presenter to questions by the audience are grouped beneath the appropriate question to facilitate meaning. Related questions and discussion from the Virtual Forum immediately following the presentation are included in the edited transcript.


Avagene Moore: Welcome to the EIIP Virtual Forum Panel Discussion! Today we are pleased to have the following FEMA Region IV representatives as our special guests to discuss the theme from the FEMA Region IV Tornado Summit --- "A Safe Place to Go With Time to Get There".

FEMA Region IV hosted a 1-day Tornado Summit on April 24 in Atlanta. Our guests today were actively involved in the Summit and will share with us the outcome of this focus on tornado disasters. Before we ask our first question of John Copenhaver, FEMA Region IV Director, let me take just a moment to discuss the order of business for this session.

After introductions, each of our panelists will respond to prepared questions to overview the FEMA Region IV Tornado Summit. When we complete the overview, the floor will be opened to Q&A. If you have a question, please input a question mark (?) and send to the moderator; wait to be recognized before submitting your question. You may compose your question while waiting your turn to speak. If we run out of time, you can ask your question directly of our panelists when we move to the Virtual Forum room at the end of our formal hour in the EIIP Panel Room. Please do not send Direct Messages to our panelists or the moderator during the formal presentation; it is very distracting and we need our full attention on the panel discussion.


And now to our FEMA Region IV guests (in the order of their appearance):

• John B. Copenhaver, Director, FEMA Region IV

• Bryan Norcross, Director of Meteorology and News Anchor, WFOR-TV Channel 4, South Florida

• Elaine W. Sexton, Director, 911 Emergency Management Agency, Hall County, Georgia, and

• A. Todd Davison, Director, Mitigation Division, FEMA Region IV.

Thanks to each of you for being here today. To give us a setting for our dialogue, we will start with John Copenhaver. John, we commend you on your vision for the Summit. Please give us a little background as to why you felt it was necessary to schedule the Tornado Summit.


John B Copenhaver: In February, March and April of this year, more than 100 lives have been lost as a direct result of tornadoes and severe weather in the southeast. These disasters have also brought destruction to thousands of homes and businesses. I felt strongly that we needed to do everything possible to minimize future loss of lives and property due to tornadoes.

Recognizing that no one person has all the answers for solving the problem, we recognized a need to capitalize on the knowledge and expertise of emergency managers, weather forecasters, meteorologists, engineers, research scientist, and building scientist who each contribute to the preparedness of communities and individual families during these severe weather events.


Avagene Moore: What was the Challenge for this Summit?

John B Copenhaver: For all participants to collectively pool their knowledge and experience to identify immediate actions, as well as future actions, to achieve our common focus: saving lives and protecting property from the devastation caused by tornadoes.


Avagene Moore: Who attended the Summit?

John B Copenhaver: State Emergency Management Directors (or their representative) from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee; academic experts from Clemson University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Texas Tech University; local community emergency management agency representatives who had recently been impacted by tornadoes; Meteorologists from local media outlets; other federal agencies including U.S. Department. As you can see, we hosted an extensive list of experts. We limited attendance to approximately 75 participants.


Avagene Moore: How was the Summit organized?

John B Copenhaver: We opened with a plenary session, ensuring all Summit participants were exposed to key ideas, limitations, and technologies surrounding the detection, forecasting, warning, and safe sheltering of people at risk from tornadoes and severe weather.

We then divided into three breakout groups:

• Warning and Forecasting

• Tornado Resistant Construction for Shelters, and

• Community Based Planning and Implementation.

Each group was tasked to identify three immediate actions (0- 12 months), three short-term actions (1- 2 years), and three long-term actions (2- 5 years) which could be taken to save lives and protect property. Finally, we came back together as a single group and each breakout group reported their proposed actions and ideas.


Avagene Moore: We will turn now to the facilitators/moderators of the breakout sessions. Bryan, what was the perspective of your breakout group?

Bryan Norcross: In our group we had lots of emergency management people from the Federal, State, and Local level, National Weather Service folks from Washington and Birmingham, and media people from Birmingham, Atlanta, and Miami. We had an energetic discussion about the message that people receive to warn them of a tornado threat, and how it is delivered.


Avagene Moore: Was consensus reached within your group?

Bryan Norcross: We had some pretty intense discussion about the best way to get the message out. And the only consensus was that there is no ONE way to do it.


Avagene Moore: Are we effectively communicating the risk of tornadoes and severe weather? If not, how can we improve?

Bryan Norcross: Any solution will include the mass-media, NOAA Weather Radio, perhaps some new technology involving the phone system or a new kind of warning device that would be in every home, and a major public education campaign.


Avagene Moore: Thanks, Bryan. Elaine Sexton led the discussion group on Community Based Planning. Elaine, your community was recently devastated by a tornado. How did this experience influence your involvement in the Tornado Summit as a workshop leader?

Elaine Sexton: I know first hand how it feels to have to face citizens and try to explain why they received no warning on a devastating deadly tornado. I also am known for being very vocal with my concerns about the short comings of the warning system in place for Northeast Georgia.


Avagene Moore: Which workshop did you lead?

Elaine Sexton: I led the Community Based Planning and Implementation session.


Avagene Moore: Do you feel your workshop came up with good answers/ideas for the future?

Elaine Sexton: Yes, I feel we came up with good short-term and long-term recommendations. Most of these recommendations have been included in the Governor's Task force recommendations which was released last week.


Avagene Moore: What is required to ensure better community based planning and implementation?

Elaine Sexton: Funding, planning, education and cooperation between the citizens and government at all levels. The citizen must accept a good deal of the responsibility for their own safety. This will be done through education, mainly . We must keep the momentum going. And everyone involved must admit there is a problem and it must be fixed. We can do this together.


Avagene Moore: Thanks, Elaine. Todd Davison chaired the third breakout group.

Todd, what was the focus of your workshop topic?

Todd Davidson: Tornado Resistant Construction for Shelters. In other word, once people are warned about a tornado risk, what sheltering will best protect their life?


Avagene Moore: What types of problems/resolutions were discussed?

Todd Davidson: What constitutes a safe place during a tornado? What construction standards must be met to ensure the "safe place" remains intact during a tornado? Where do you go if you are not at home during the tornado, for example if you are at church, if you are at school, if you are at the mall?


Avagene Moore: What were the findings of your group? Does this topic require further investigation?

John B Copenhaver: Avagene, we're having technical difficulties here! We can try with me.


Avagene Moore: John, please share with us the results and recommendations of the Tornado Summit.

John B Copenhaver: All of the results are summarized within the three breakout groups. We have copies of our findings available for anyone interested.


Avagene Moore: How will recommendations be implemented?

John B Copenhaver: Follow-up meetings will take place, plus correspondence and possibly trials of new technology.


Avagene Moore: Would you give us some examples of activities Region IV is undertaking to mitigate the damage of tornadoes and severe weather?

John B Copenhaver: Our focus is on saving lives - preventing damage from tornadoes isn't too realistic. We're going to trial new detection technology in a location to be determined and connecting this technology with advance WARNING technology as well.


Avagene Moore: How will you track progress? Will it be disseminated to the States, locals, etc.?

John B Copenhaver: Absolutely - the states are equal partners in these trials, and will actively participate.


Avagene Moore: Thank you, John, Bryan, Elaine, and Todd. We will now open the floor to questions from our audience. If you have a question, please input a question mark (?), send, then wait for recognition before sending your question to our panelists. You may compose your question while waiting your turn to speak. Question, anyone? Diane, your question, please.


Diane Merten: What are you planning to be able to communicate detection and warning sooner to the public?

Bryan Norcross: We suggested several things covering a wide variety of topics:

1. NOAA weather radio's coverage needs to be increased. Even in the south, there are many parts of each state that have no coverage.

2. Also, assuring that every school and shopping mall has a weather radio was thought to be a good idea.

John B Copenhaver: There are new systems available in the public switched telephone network as well as algorithms that will be introduced into existing NEXRAD radar installations that will help.


Gil Gibbs: I was just considering the fact that tornadoes are a side component of hurricanes, and wonder if that has been taken into consideration for this idea?

Bryan Norcross: Hurricanes and tornadoes are very different but share some common components. We recognized a problem getting a unified and consistent and timely message out through the mass media. We suggested identifying a specific media market and working with the radio and TV stations there to work together to communicate emergency info better. The market still needs to be identified.

David Crews: Comment: I was in the DFO when the tornado hit Hall County. I was using NOAA Wx radio which alerted me and then I went to the Internet for the Warning. The NWS announcement was almost simultaneous with the event. However, the weather radio coupled with the Internet worked well.


Ray Pena: Mr. Norcross partly answered my question. Most people get their warnings from broadcast media. How can we assure consistency from them? They all seem to want to show off that what they have is better than the rest.

Bryan Norcross: It's a BIG problem. Broadcasters must be brought into the emergency system if it is ever to be right. I should say also that NOAA weather radio needs to be part of the system too.

Ray Pena: Observation - most people will seek to confirm warnings. If the info they get from station to station differs, it can lead to confusion or simply ignoring what could be critical info.

Bryan Norcross: Ray is correct. That is why the message on NOAA Weather Radio and the message on the media needs to be the same. The problem is as was pointed out; MOST people will always get their information from their favorite person on their favorite station. TV or radio.

Elaine Sexton: Comment. The two biggest problems are still, how to correctly forecast and give warnings and how to get that information to the public in a timely manner.

Bryan Norcross: Elaine is correct. The problem is a lot of work is being done on the forecasting end. We have to get the information to the public 24 hours a day, not just when they might be watching TV. And the message problem has had very little attention.

Ray Pena: Observation - I understand Mr. Witt will be speaking to the American Meteorological Society tomorrow. His support for consistent messages can be very helpful.


David Crews: What about Skywarn run by the NWS? Also,IWIN works well. The new NOAA WX radio answers a lot of the mitigation questions (including 24 hours a day) and the NWS is also doing a Console Replacement Upgrade which should automate and speed up the Warning process.

Bryan Norcross: The problem with the NWS warning system as it is now --- t he same alert is sounded for a Watch or a Warning or a Water Spout. If it starts going off in the middle of the night, and the threat is not imminent, people will turn it off. Even with the new SAME (Specific Area Message Encoding) technology.

David Crews: Comment: the new radio has a LED readout, a set of lights, coding for the area affected as well as audio. It is very unobtrusive to use. Not like the older ones.

Elaine Sexton: Comment: we have found that warnings are being issued more than ever before since the March 20 tornado.


Lori Wieber: How do we obtain the summaries, Mr. Copenhaver?

John B Copenhaver: Please contact Mary Anne Lyle at (770) 220-5378.


Avagene Moore: John, tell us about some of work with Habitat and others.

I thought those were very good mitigation efforts.

John B Copenhaver: We will be working with the State of Florida to test the "in-home shelter" technology on new Habitat homes in the state.


Ray Pena: Mr. Copenhaver, will the reports be posted on the Web?

Avagene Moore: John has been bumped again, sorry Ray. John just called and said they will post as much as they can on the FEMA Region IV web site, found through http://www.fema.gov. Isabel, is your question to Bryan or Elaine?


Isabel McCurdy: Elaine. What is the most important message that you want to tell folks 24 hours a day?

Elaine Sexton: I want an effective way to disseminate warnings to the public 24 hours a day. I want to be able to give them specific instructions and information and I want to be reasonably sure they are receiving the information.

Avagene Moore: Our time is up for the EIIP Panel today. Thanks to John Copenhaver, Bryan Norcross, Elaine Sexton, and Todd Davision for an excellent overview of the Tornado Summit. Thank you, audience --- your participation is greatly appreciated too. If you have another question or wish to express your appreciation to our panelists today, please join us as we move to the Virtual Forum for a few minutes of informal chatting.

Virtual Forum Audience Questions

Avagene Moore: Thanks to everyone. There was much pressure for our FEMA Region IV HQ folks today. Good job despite connection problems. John said they will join us for other chats in the Virtual Forum.

Isabel McCurdy: They did an excellent job!


Cindy Rice: Question for summit people concerning the tornado magnets.

Avagene Moore: Is Elaine with us? Or Bryan? Cindy, they will have to respond.

Cindy Rice has a question for Elaine and/or Bryan.

Bryan Norcross: I'm here.

Elaine Sexton: This was my first forum. It is an excellent way to exchange ideas and gather information. Go ahead.


Cindy Rice: Apologize, late onto chat, one of the problems is the lack of safe places for trailer/mobile home dwellers, was that addressed in any way?

Elaine Sexton: Yes, we addressed the problems with older manufactured homes. The best solution I have heard is shelters within mobile home parks, etc.

Amy Sebring: It appears from the storms this spring, that those experiencing tornadoes for the first time, are a lot more interested in NOAA radios after the fact!!

Elaine Sexton: I think I would rather deal with hurricanes than tornadoes. At least you have some lead time with hurricanes. Of course, I might change my mind if I lived on the coast.

Gil Gibbs: It will be interesting to see how the alert system responds during the coastal approach of a hurricane in reporting tornadoes. We had two during Celia here on the island.

Bryan Norcross: Comment to Gil: In a hurricane situation there is 12 or 24 hours to save lives. And most people have time to tune in and get a message. The lack of a system of communications really shows.

Gil Gibbs: What's even more interesting, Bryan, is how the communications via telephone linkage go down or overload and shut down. That's when you start worrying.


Diane Merten: Probably apparent this is my first forum and I just wanted to express appreciation for the information shared.

Avagene Moore: Glad to have you with us, Diane.


Cindy Rice: Mobile home parks are all over but there is no regulation or clause or mitigation dollars to provide or assist in mass shelter in mobile home parks, or is there?

Elaine Sexton: There are no regulations in Georgia that I know of. We even discussed passing legislation to require park owners to build shelters. The manufactured housing industry is looking at safe rooms in the newer homes.

Cindy Rice: Again, the parks are out there with older homes and are growing. New homes are great but a lot of people still are stuck in the old ones.


Amy Sebring: I think the potential problem from ‘overwarning’ is overstated. Has anyone actually documented?

Bryan Norcross: Not that I know of. But I can't leave my radio on. It goes off too much.

Amy Sebring: Hopefully more NOAA radios will be in homes and facilities for the next round.


Bryan Norcross: To Amy, that's true. But do you think they keep them turned on a month later after multiple warnings that don't affect them?

Amy Sebring: With SAME, you can specify county, as you apparently know. It also addresses the problem of message consistency. If your NWS message is going out over EAS system. In my experience, there is mostly ignorance that these even exist or are available.

Bryan Norcross: The SAME technology will help but until the thing goes in a big way when there is immediate danger. I don't think that system will work. For example, it could light a light for a watch and make a little noise for a warning, and make a big noise for an "Immediate Action Warning" (a new higher level).

Kevin Farrell: Amy, many of the programmable scanners have the weather feature built in.

Avagene Moore: I personally think NOAA weather radios should be pushed heavily. People have to take more responsibility for receiving the warnings.

David Crews: I am not pushing the new NOAA Radio by a well known outlet, however, for about $70 the radio addresses most of the problems that the older ones had. They only respond to the affected area you are in, they have a set of lights that indicate advisory, watches and warnings. Also have an LED display that scrolls a message, audio can be muted or turned on as desired. The warning beep stops after about 10 seconds.


Cindy Rice: The NWS radio you're talking about is EAS or a EBS upgradable to EAS, right?

Amy Sebring: It's SAME, Cindy; Specific Area Message Encoding, capable. The Radio Shack SAME has two tone capability but don't know if it is being taken advantage of possibly. And not all watches are alarmed, in our area, only the most hazardous.

Avagene Moore: I feel we are propagating the mindset that government at all levels is responsible for everything. Individuals need to be responsible for getting the watches and warnings, then taking appropriate action.

Gil Gibbs: Trying to cover all aspects of warnings is a lot like predicting emergencies --- an anachronism!

Cindy Rice: New term, thanks.

Bryan Norcross: It's true people have to take responsibility but we don't really give them a chance. We distribute emergency information to most people through mis-informed, untrained announcers on rock and roll stations. And they almost always get it wrong, if they give the information at all.

Gil Gibbs: That's nothing new, Bryan, but better than nothing, and getting people to respond is always a long bet.

Avagene Moore: I understand that, Bryan. But some common sense and having a weather radio to alert you 24-hours a day makes sense to me.

Bryan Norcross: I think that NOAA Wx Radio will eventually be the backbone of the system but there is a lonnnnng way to go.

David Crews: I have my NOAA Radio mounted on the wall over my TV set. The local alerts, watches and warnings seem to work here in my area. Very accurate and timely.

Amy Sebring: Also very fast, David. My radio went off with the message just moments after it came across the weather wire.


Amy Sebring: Bryan, I was not clear, were you talking about finding a market for a pilot effort to find ways to improve dissemination?

Bryan Norcross: The idea of a test market is to identify a city, Birmingham or Charleston, for example, and try to put together a comprehensive media plan there as a test.


Bryan Norcross: Like, who is going to do the talking, emergency managers, NWS, or media?

Gil Gibbs: I'd say that it should fall right into the NWS hands, Bryan, and avoid some confusion. Almost trial by fire, but time is of the essence even as we type.

Avagene Moore: Sounds to me like we need to have a session on just warnings and how we do them. I like the media plan idea, Bryan.

Bryan Norcross: The problem is, people in the NWS are not especially good communicators and the people in the media are not very knowledgeable. There is a training issue here. I suggested the pilot market idea but it will be VERY difficult to get media cooperation.


Amy Sebring: What are the obstacles, Bryan?

Avagene Moore: I think Ray sized up the competitive issues pretty well earlier.

Amy Sebring: Oh, sorry I missed it, I guess. Will check out transcript.


Avagene Moore: What about the training issue? Is training not recognized by the groups identified?

Bryan Norcross: Many media outlets have no ability or commitment to doing news.

Then, there are competitive issues. Until it is a federal requirement that every media outlet participate in the emergency information dissemination system, it will not happen. Competition is a great thing on a normal day. But when there is an emergency, some other system has to kick in.

David Crews: Media is OK as a secondary relay, but the NWS remains my primary source. The IWIN, NOAA radio and radar data is good and getting better. The planned communications upgrades will make the NWS system even more responsive.

Bryan Norcross: Avagene. I gotta run. Bye everyone.

Amy Sebring: I understand one of the counties in Region IV is implementing a call-down system for elderly.. Here is the County system <http://www.fema.gov/Reg-IV/1998/r4_034.htm> Thanks, Bryan..

Avagene Moore: Thanks so much, Elaine and Bryan. Bryan is on the road somewhere and still made the time to join us.