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Authorities work to send weather warnings to schools faster

POSTED: September 3, 2008 5:01 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

An emergency alert radio is one of two nearby Elaine Ingram's desk in the office of Lyman Hall Elementary. Lyman Hall Elementary is one of the two schools that was damaged Tuesday as tornados that swept through the area.

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Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell met with local educators Friday to discuss the possibility of expanding direct severe weather warning alert systems to include principals and administrators.

Gary Stewart, executive director of school safety for the Hall County school system, said the system is already in effect for all 34 county school principals as of Friday afternoon.

Kimbrell said he met with administrators from Hall County and Gainesville school systems, as well as with the police chief of Gainesville State College, to discuss how best to get severe weather information directly to school leaders even faster.

"We were already working on it with the city and county systems," Kimbrell said. "The weather Tuesday just kicked us into higher gear."

Currently, all schools should have at least one radio warning system that receives alerts from the National Weather Service, Kimbrell said. The fire chief met with educators to discuss the possibility of extending the Emergency Management Network system county authorities use to the principals and school leaders selected to receive the alerts.

Stewart said the county school system now includes principals in this ring of alert services, and the system hopes to include more administrators as the network becomes more familiar to educators.

The alerts go directly to educators’ cell phones or Blackberries via satellite and is backed up by the internet, providing them access to severe weather alerts at the same time as local authorities.

"It’s just another tool for them to use," Kimbrell said.

Kimbrell and Stewart said they will be visiting local schools to ensure each school has at least one severe weather alert radio working properly in the front office. Stewart said each school has its own specific severe weather alert procedure, but many Hall County schools’ plans call for the front office secretary to man the radio and broadcast severe weather announcements on the schoolwide intercom.

Kimbrell said other area schools, including Brenau University, Lakeview Academy and North Georgia Christian School, would be asked to participate in the network.

On Tuesday, Hall County schools’ staff took action when the National Weather Service alerted schools to severe weather in the area, getting students to enact the severe weather drill and take cover in hallways or in rooms away from windows.

But at Oakwood and Lyman Hall elementary schools, the National Weather Service hadn’t issued a tornado watch. Moments before a tornado hit and damaged the schools, nearly 100 students at both campuses had been taking part in afterschool activities.

The National Weather Service went immediately to a tornado warning Tuesday at 3:49 p.m., meaning a tornado had been spotted in the area, only after the twisters’ 90 mph winds hit the schoolyards at Oakwood Elementary at 3:38 p.m. and Lyman Hall Elementary at 3:45 p.m.

No students were injured in any of the three tornadoes that hit Hall County Tuesday.

"Unless we had gotten that warning earlier ... I don’t know of anything that we could’ve done," Stewart said.

Pat Tilson, principal of Lyman Hall, said she fully supports the updated program.

"If it can get us the information faster, I’m all for it," Tilson said.

Stewart said the program will get information to principals at the exact same time it is broadcast on the radios located in schools’ front offices, but principals will get the same information immediately from their cell phones or Blackberries regardless of their location.

Hall County Fire Capt. Scott Cagle estimated Hall County schools sustained $815,000 in damage. The tornado damaged four first-grade classrooms at Oakwood Elementary, and the same tornado damaged the gym roof at Lyman Hall Elementary.

Kimbrell said extending the Emergency Management Network can be implemented with no additional cost to schools because county authorities already have that capability and are simply expanding its scope.



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