News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 3, 2011

Vigo's 3-level warning system debuts in storm

Howard Greninger
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Vigo County motorists for the first time were introduced to emergency weather travel warnings during this week’s ice storm.

Early Wednesday, the Vigo County Emergency Management Agency issued a “Level Two Warning,” meaning road conditions are threatening to the safety of drivers, advising travel only for essentials, such as going to work or for medical needs.

It was a downgrade from a “Level One State of Emergency” issued about 10 p.m. Tuesday, under which only emergency personnel, such as ambulances or fire trucks, should be on roadways.

The least of three levels is a “Level Three Watch,” which advises motorists to use caution and avoid areas that might be restricted.

“During the flood of 2008, we didn’t do this [warning system] because we were in an emergency condition,” said J.D. Kesler, deputy director of the county’s EMA. At that time, Gov. Mitch Daniels had already declared a state of emergency in a large portion of west-central and southern Indiana, which included Vigo County.

The travel warnings are a result of regulations established through the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. “It is more regulatory rather than a statute. Once we activated our Emergency Operations Center, we had Sheriff [Greg] Ewing out here, we had some folks from different county-based fire departments, and we were in telephone conference with county commissioners and the county highway,” Kesler said.

Commissioners, as elected officials, make the final determination to issue the warnings, Kelser said, “based on input from public safety.”

“We did this to keep as many people as we can off the road,” Commissioner President Michael Ciolli said of the travel warnings.

“I had four to five conference calls. Our decision was based on information from law enforcement and highway plus the road conditions and the weather,” Ciolli said. “Apparently something worked right, because based on what law enforcement said, the accident rate was down.”

Kesler said most drivers complied with the warnings.

“The reality is that most folks know when the weather is bad. The volume of traffic was way down, as reported by the sheriff deputies out last night, in the evening and morning hours. It is a road travel advisory,” Kesler said.

“People are still allowed to drive, depending on what they are doing and what they have to do,” Kesler said, such as emergency personnel or utility workers. “People just need to use good judgment, and they did,” Kesler said.

The county’s Emergency Operations Center is housed at the Vigo County Emergency Management Agency’s building at the Terre Haute International Airport-Hulman Field. The center has 15 seats and large television sets and is equipped with Internet updates and information from the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

Tuesday through Wednesday morning, EMA workers and volunteers, manned the center. In addition, members of the Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) group manned ham radios.

On Wednesday, Doug K. Mullens, emergency coordinator for ARES, manned a radio at the EMA office to maintain communication to shelters at Terre Haute North Vigo High School and with other American Red Cross sites.

“We’ll direct traffic back and forth as needed, if they need more cots or equipment there. Cell phones do not work there well in the gymnasiums [at North high school],” Mullens said.

In addition, members of ARES serve as weather spotters to provide fast updates on changing storm conditions. There are 35 ARES members, Mullens said.

“We work hand in hand with EMA to expand some of their capabilities,” Mullens said.

Kesler said the use of ham radio operators during emergencies “is a great asset to have.”

On a side note, Ciolli said county highway workers were clearing public parking lots Wednesday in preparation for county offices to be open today. City government offices were also to be open today.

Kesler said weather conditions would still bring frigid overnight temperatures, but more precipitation was not expected.

“It looks like we dodged a bullet on the amount of ice. It could have been worse,” Kesler said.

Howard Greninger can be reached at (812) 231-4204 or howard.greninger@tribstar.com.