TUSCALOOSA FIRE DEPARTMENT Chief Thomas D. Davis Personnel: 204 career firefighters Apparatus: 10 engines, two ladders, one quint, three rescue units, one hazmat, one water rescue, three reserve pumpers, three reserve rescue units Population: 165,000 Area: 68 square miles DUNCANVILLE...
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Booth lives in the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park. His home was damaged, but livable. He also said, "Most of the wounded didn't know the tornado was coming. People don't pay attention to the sirens and horns. We had plenty of warning, 17 to 18 minutes. I don't know why people don't pay attention." He said weather-alert radios costing about $30 each hook into the National Weather Service and sound only when there's an alert.
"We learned quite a bit," Booth said. "We never had to deal with a situation like this before. We learned how to set up equipment and be better prepared. We could have used more chain saws, for example. You never really have enough of them. We also could have used more lights at night.
"We've been pushing to get a centralized dispatch system for Tuscaloosa County because then everybody would be on the same page. It would make things run smoother. Now it's all separate."
Don Hartley of the Tuscaloosa County Emergency Management Agency agreed that the weather-alert radios would have helped.
"They're programmed for specific codes," Hartley said. "People seem to be either complacent, fatalistic, indifferent or they think it will always happen to someone else. People also have the mistaken belief that they will hear the outdoor warning sirens, but the noise a tornado makes can mask the sirens, even though there are 41 sirens in the city and county of Tuscaloosa.
"We're the main planning agency for the county. It's our job to increase pubic awareness. We're the chief warning and recovery agency. The tornado watch was issued at 11 A.M. Spotters were sent out into the field. We had an initial problem with communications. There were a limited number of channels and a large number of apparatus responding. We should re-duce the communications.
"We have mutual aid agreements with all adjacent counties, including Jefferson, Hales, Bibb, Green, Pickens, Walker and Fayette counties. There were six fatalities at Bear Creek Mobile Home Park, one in Geneva, two on U.S. Highway 69, two fatalities from undetermined locations were taken to a mortuary and one fatality was DOA at the local hospital." (It was later determined the two fatalities from undetermined locations and the one DOA were from Oors Trailer Park.)
"There's been a real interest in tornado shelters and safe rooms developed by Texas Tech for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). A bank next to the Winn Dixie in Hinton Place was hit by a tornado. The bank was demolished, but the vault was completely intact. A vault is essentially a safe room."
The unseasonable warmth and proximity to Christmas had caused many people to leave their homes. Once outdoors or enroute to a destination, presumably they might have had a better chance of hearing warning sirens or horns. Hartley said, "Lots of people were Christmas shopping and because of that fatalities were down."
This is probably true. However, tornadoes are extremely capricious, as rescuers and victims will attest. Whether an individual is safer in a car or a shopping mall is to a great extent a matter of luck. Reduction or centralization of communication channels is essential. Cluttered channels often produce needless, sometimes redundant chatter and confusion. Tornadoes routinely blow down street signs and clog roads with debris, making them impassible. Mutual aid, frequently unfamiliar with local topography, can be seriously compromised by an inability to find correct streets or specific addresses.
An abundance of tools such as chain saws, axes and lights are a definite plus. Unit strength and effectiveness can often be greatly enhanced by a well-led, well-intended and well-equipped citizenry.
Weather-alert radios are only beneficial insofar as people pay attention to them. Shelters, no matter how strong, are good only if people use them. Ditches, easy and inexpensive to make, maintain and disguise are probably the most effective means of saving lives.
Dissemination of vital, potentially life-saving information is a continuous, often frustrating endeavor. Hartley said Emergency Management has about a six-month window after a catastrophic event in which to grab people's attention. In the end, though, all that emergency management and fire departments - both paid and volunteer can do is to go and clean up the mess.