MOUNT VERNON — Residents in northeastern Knox County received tornado warnings on their cellular devices June 13, during a brutal storm that left thousands powerless.
But no sirens sounded. And no tornadoes touched down that night, although high winds damaged properties.
Meanwhile, residents in western Knox County received no warnings – either through cellular notifications or sirens – that a tornado was about to rip through their neighborhood, spinning 105 miles per hour and carrying enough force to destroy barns and throw farm equipment over 200 yards.
But it did. And properties were damaged, but no injuries or deaths were reported.
What led to this communication breakdown? Why weren’t residents in northeastern Knox County warned both ways; why weren’t residents in western Knox County warned at all; and what’s being done to prevent similar issues in the future?
You asked, so we dug into it.
Dispatch center overwhelmed
The National Weather Service, a federal government agency, is tasked with issuing weather warnings to the public during potentially hazardous situations. Knox County is served by the agency’s Cleveland office, which covers 28 counties in northern Ohio, two counties in northwest Pennsylvania and most of Lake Erie.
The NWS issued one tornado warning in Ohio on June 13-14. It was issued June 13 at 11:42 p.m. for northeastern Knox County, southern Ashland County, and most of Holmes County.
The agency also issued two severe thunderstorm warnings for Knox County during the storm – one June 13 at 11:12 p.m., near the beginning of the storm, and one June 14 at 3:30 a.m., before the second wave hit.
When the NWS issued the tornado warning for northeastern Knox County, residents received mobile alerts. But the sirens in Brinkhaven didn’t sound.
This occurred because the Knox County 911 dispatch center, which is charged with sounding the county’s emergency sirens, was overwhelmed with calls during the height of the storm. Director Laura Webster said dispatchers fielded roughly 480 calls between 11:30 p.m. and 12:05 a.m. – the time when the tornado warning was issued.
"The simple answer is they (dispatchers) were so swamped with calls that they did not even have time to set those outdoor warning sirens," Webster told Knox Pages last week.
Five dispatchers can work at a time during a shift with three being the minimum, Webster said. All five slots were full. At one time, Webster said, 80 calls were on hold waiting to be dispatched.
This problem was compounded by the fact that Knox County’s emergency system does not allow dispatchers to multi-task.
Under the current system, dispatchers cannot activate emergency sirens and handle fire/EMS calls at the same time – making even more difficult the task of sounding the emergency sirens that night.
“The activation currently goes out over the same VHF radio channel that we use to alert fire/EMS of medical and fire runs,” Webster explained.
“As advised before, dispatch was overwhelmed with calls and dispatching fire/EMS. If we would have set off the sirens, it ties that channel up for about 52 seconds. That would be 52 seconds of not being able to dispatch fire/EMS.
"Also, the sirens sound for three minutes, (and) after 10 minutes of silence the dispatcher has to set them off again (tying up the radio channel again), and this continues until the warning is canceled.”
Knox County Commissioner Thom Collier called the dispatch center’s emergency warning system “dated and unreliable” in a Facebook post June 16, and said the system’s flaws prevented county officials from sounding the sirens.
“Keep in mind, not only are the sirens for OUTDOOR notification only, they are dated and unreliable. They are analog and therefore have to be programmed to go off by 911 Dispatchers,” Collier wrote.
“When 450 people call 911 during the 30 minute tornado warning time frame (as happened with this storm) they have no time to set the alarms or send text alerts. Their priority is answering the phones as some might actually be emergencies rather than people calling to ask why the sirens aren’t going off.”
The tornado warning in northeastern Knox County on June 13 lasted 18 minutes– from 11:42 p.m. until midnight. There were no confirmed tornadoes in the area that night.
No warning, no sirens in tornado path
Meanwhile, in western Knox County, sirens – and cellular devices – remained silent while a tornado ripped through the area.
The tornado touched down in Morrow County, near Chesterville, at 11:22 p.m., NWS officials later confirmed. It then traveled southeast, crossing Township Road 180 before entering Knox County. The tornado dissipated in Liberty Township, between Fredericktown and Mount Vernon – south of Green Valley Road and west of Cochran Road.
The tornado is believed to have traveled 7.1 miles. NWS officials believe it reached wind speeds of 105 miles per hour, earning an EF-1 classification (albeit on the high end), and it also spanned 25 yards wide during its trajectory.
Why didn’t the NWS issue a tornado warning for the communities near Fredericktown and Mount Vernon that night? According to Kirk Lombardy, a meteorologist with the agency’s Cleveland office, the signs of an emerging tornado in that area were not visible that night.
"The reason why one location might not get a warning and another area would, is if we see signatures develop on the radar that indicate tight circulation over a specific area, that's where we'll issue warnings for," Lombardy told Knox Pages last week.
"We don't issue warnings for everywhere else if there's nothing going on."
And because the NWS did not issue a warning, residents in the area were not notified – either through a mobile alert from the NWS, or a siren call from the county dispatch center.
The county takes its cues from the NWS in situations like this, Webster explained. No official warning means no sirens.
“In order for dispatch to set off sirens, they have to get a warning from NWS,” she said. “Or if dispatch receives a call from a trained spotter, fire or law enforcement, then they must call the NWS to confirm.”
Even if the dispatch center had received an official warning from the NWS, it’s unclear if the county dispatch center would have been able to sound the sirens for western Knox County, given the logistical issues it faced elsewhere.
The tornado crossed into Knox County around 11:30 p.m. – the same time 911 calls began to pour into the dispatch center, overwhelming emergency personnel and preventing sirens from being sounded in the northeastern part of the county, where an official warning was, indeed, in effect.
There is hope on the horizon, Webster said, when it comes to solving the problems faced by dispatchers on the night of the storm.
The Knox County 911 dispatch center is already preparing to launch a new system in August – one that would allow dispatchers to multitask during severe weather situations.
“The good news is that before this happened, we had already been in the process of switching over to MARCS paging for fire/EMS and no longer using VHF to tone out for fire/EMS runs,” Webster said. “This will go live on August 5, 2022. This will give us the ability to dispatch fire/EMS and set off the outdoor warning sirens at the same time.”
Collier also urged the public to call the dispatch center’s non-emergency line during future storms, in an effort to prevent dispatchers from becoming overwhelmed.
“If you or a loved one was having an actual medical or life threatening emergency it would have been difficult to get through (during the storm). They had as many as 80 calls in the queue that night, most were NOT emergencies,” Collier said in his June 16 Facebook post.
“Please, use common sense and ONLY call 911 if there is an actual emergency. They have a non-emergency line that can be called and won’t block actual emergency calls. That number is (740) 392-3573.”
The Knox County Emergency Management Agency issued a press release Tuesday, detailing all the ways residents can stay informed during severe weather situations.
In addition to online NWS alerts and outdoor sirens, residents can receive from a battery-operated National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration radio.
“NOAA Weather Radio is a nationwide network of radio stations operated by local National Weather Service offices. The continuous broadcasts provide current weather warnings, forecasts, and conditions and is the best method to receive severe weather warnings,” the EMA stated.
“When forecasters issue warnings for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, and flash floods; special receivers sound a tone which alert people even if they’re sleeping, outdoors, watching satellite TV, don’t live near a warning siren, or the electricity is off.
“A NOAA Weather Radio receiver will sound an alarm to alert you when a storm warning is issued. It may be the only way you will learn of an impending storm; especially if you’re asleep, outdoors, or the electricity is off. The receivers needed to receive the alarm are available at electronics stores.
“Most models can operate on batteries; some are programmable to alert only for a single county or a portion of a county. People who cannot receive a strong signal inside their building may need to use an external antenna.”
Residents can also stay informed through mobile apps and websites, Webster said, as well as regional radio and television news stations.