When severe weather threatens the Midlands, local authorities recommend residents rely on emergency alert systems that send messages to mobile phones or other devices.
Lexington and Richland counties no longer have the loud sirens that used to go off whenever a tornado watch or tornado warning was issued. Instead, they use electronic systems that send alerts via email, smartphones, landline phones and other methods.
Lexington uses a system called CodeRED, which is free to use and sends alerts about severe weather as well other emergencies such as fires, floods, water main breaks and chemical spills.
Citizens, including those who own businesses, are able to add as many phone numbers and email accounts as they choose.
Richland County uses a similar system, which also allows residents to opt-in to receive notifications via phone calls, text and email.
Richland County administrators send notifications regarding severe weather, gas leaks, flash-flooding, police activity and other alerts. However, if residents in Richland do not create an account with the system, they will still receive alerts by phone if they are listed in the phone book. Residents are able to update their contact information if it changes.
Both Lexington and Richland authorities say residents’ information will remain confidential and only be used for the purpose of sending alerts.
Why did both counties choose to no longer use the sirens and begin these opt-in systems?
Lexington County spokesman Harrison Cahill has a simple answer.
“We know that people are living in the digital age,” Cahill said. “Everyone’s phones are either in their pocket, around their hip or on their neck. They are always connected in some form or fashion, so this is a way for us to get efficient messaging of emergency alerts out to our residents in a timely manner, especially when that emergency alert is something as prevalent as a tornado.”
Cahill encourages Lexington County residents to opt in to the CodeRED app.
“Realistically, we would like for our residents to go ahead and download the app for their mobile device,” Cahill said. “That is how we can directly message those people in any certain area that there may be a certain incident that could impact them and how long it could impact them and what the potential ramifications of the incident could be.”
Cahill also said the CodeRED app gives specific instructions to residents during emergencies. For example, during a tornado warning, the app would tell residents to get to the center and lowest floor of their homes and stay away from windows. The app also sends out messages to specific communities involved, not necessarily the county as a whole.
“That’s the nice thing about CodeRED,” Cahill said. “It’s messaging that we can create and tailor-make for where we want that message to go. We can geo-fence where that message is going to be sent out, so that way someone potentially living in Chapin who is watching the news would not receive a tornado warning for something that’s happening in the southwestern part of the county.”
Richland County Emergency Manager Mike Kalec also responded to the sirens no longer being used.
“The emergency alert system is the quickest method,” Kalec said. “The alert system touches all population groups, including the deaf, who would not otherwise hear a siren. What happens if the siren fails and doesn’t work? The sirens take maintenance year-round and require people to constantly go out and test them.”
Kalec said he recommends residents utilize local television and National Weather Service apps to stay updated on alerts.
In addition, the South Carolina Emergency Management Division has the South Carolina Emergency Manager app in place to help users build their own emergency plans. It helps residents keep track of their supplies and stay in touch with relatives and friends. SCEMD also no longer uses tornado sirens state-wide.
“They don’t work,” SCEMD Public Information Officer Derrec Becker said, referring to the sirens. “They are ineffective and are a hold-over from a time when people had more outdoor lifestyles. The further away you get from the sirens, the less effective it is.”
Becker further explained the convenience of SCEMD’s system.
“The South Carolina Emergency Manager app is probably one of the best sources for developing people’s own emergency plans,” Becker said. “If it’s a large enough disaster, they don’t have to sign up for anything. We can send them an emergency alert directly to their cell phones without having to download an app.”
SCEMD also has a CodeRED system, but Becker does not recommend this over the manager app. For more localized emergencies like tornado warnings that do not require state assistance, Becker encourages South Carolinians to monitor local media and weather reports and purchase NOAA-certified tone-alert weather radios.
“Think of a weather radio like a smoke detector . . . , but for weather, and change the batteries at about the same time,” Becker said.
Another warning system in place is a system called Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). WEA are emergency messages sent by an authorized government alerting authorities through mobile carriers.
Several government agencies participate in WEA, including FEMA, the FCC, the National Weather Service, the Department of Homeland Security and several local and state agencies. Individuals are not required to sign up for WEA, as alerts are sent automatically to WEA-capable phones during an emergency.
Emergency alerts sent by WEA include severe weather or extreme weather warnings, AMBER alerts, local emergencies requiring evacuation and presidential alerts during a national emergency. The National Weather Service began using these alerts in June 2012.
“Having multiple ways of receiving warnings is what the National Weather Service recommends,” said John Quagliariello, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Columbia. “No single method is 100 percent effective. For example, tornado sirens are really only meant for people outdoors in the vicinity of those sirens. There’s a high cost associated with maintaining those sirens.”
According to the NWS website, the WEA messages are not the same service that Lexington and Richland have asked the public to register for. They are complementary, however.
“It’s a great way for people to get life-saving warnings because most cell carriers now offer the service, and most new cell phones have it enabled,” Quagliariello said. “As soon as a warning is issued for your area or even if you are traveling to an unknown area that is under a warning, you’ll get that notification pretty much instantly.”
The WEA system is currently cell-tower based, but Quagliariello hopes it will change to a GPS-based system with a higher character limit shown on cell phones. The current character limit allows for minimum information to be shown on residents’ cell phones.
“When a cell tower loses power if a tornado hits it and there’s no generator, you may not get that warning,” Quaqliariello said, which is why the National Weather Service recommends having more than one device for receiving warnings. “Later this year, they are supposed to expand the amount of characters that can be used in those alerts. We should be able to push across more information.”
How to sign up for alerts
▪ Sign up for CodeRED online at https://public.coderedweb.com/CNE/en-US/BF4D2D003203.
▪ Create a username and password.
▪ Add the phone number 800-566-9780 to your caller ID for weather warnings.
▪ Text messages will come from short code 76993.
▪ Sign up for alerts online at https://member.everbridge.net/index/453003085611473#/signup.
▪ Create a username and password and enter contact information.
▪ If contact information changes, residents can update their profile.
▪ If a username and password is not created, citizens will still receive alerts if they are listed in the phone book.