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Severe weather alerts via cellphones warn residents of extreme weather

| Tuesday, April 29, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

It will most likely be the ding of a cellphone alert, not the wail of a Midwestern-style tornado siren that will alert Western Pennsylvania residents that a twister is approaching, emergency officials said on Monday.

One day after deadly tornadoes struck the central and southern United States, leaving an unknown number of deaths and many more injuries, local experts say the needs in this area versus those in the Midwest and South, where states can average 100 or more tornadoes a year, demand a different approach.

The blaring sirens that are synonymous with tornado season in the Midwest and other twister-prone regions would probably remain silent most of the year in this area, experts said.

“I think, given the actual frequency of the events, I don't know that it would be cost-effective (to install and maintaintornado sirens),” said Steve Bicehouse, Butler County emergency services director.

But when a threat does exist, local officials say cellphones are best for getting the word out.

“I think there is so much information coming out that I think there are very few people who will not get the message whether through ... radios, cellphone (or a) community alerting system,” Bicehouse said.

In cases of extreme weather, incidents involving missing children and other local emergencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency operates a system that sends free alerts to mobile devices, without the need to download an app or subscribe to a service.

The National Weather Service sends alerts over the system to warn residents of events such as tornadoes, flash floods, hurricanes or extreme wind.

“The National Weather Service does a phenomenal job at what they do. We rely on them a lot,” Bicehouse said.

Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety spokesman Dan Stevens said that although only a couple of his communities — Ligonier and Mt. Pleasant — have dedicated storm sirens, local emergency management officials can decide to sound fire whistles to signal approaching severe weather.

Fayette County Emergency Management Director Roy Shipley said his office uses television and radio alerts to spread weather warnings to residents, hospitals and nursing homes.

The county notifies the intermediate unit, which in turn notifies school districts if severe weather is expected during the school day.

He said he uses a statewide database where county officials log weather incidents to stay on top of weather patterns moving into the area.

On those rare occasions when twisters have touched down locally, the alert systems in place have worked, preventing injuries or deaths in situations with widespread property damage such as the tornado that ripped through Hempfield and Sewickley townships in March 2011, damaging about 90 homes and several school buildings. The system worked when a tornado struck the Ligonier area in June 2012, damaging 75 homes and destroying cottages at the Antiochian Village Camp and Conference Center.

But the cellphone alert system only works if residents keep the function activated on their phones, Stevens said. Some users find the alerts annoying and, with the flick of a button in the settings area of their phones, shut down access to the warnings.

Stevens said Western Pennsylvania's ridges and hilly topography prevent the severity of storms seen elsewhere in the United States.

But Tuesday and Wednesday could bring severe thunderstorms in the Pittsburgh region, especially farther south of the city, said Dan Kottlowski, senior meteorologist at State College-based AccuWeather.com.

“We are entering that time of the year now where the potential for severe weather does increase,” Kottlowski said. “May, June and July are prime time for southwestern Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia and southeastern Ohio to experience damaging winds, hail and tornadoes.”

So far this year, the region hasn't experienced the warm temperatures and high humidity needed to produce severe spring storms, said Rodney Smith, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Moon. If the jet stream brings a cold front when those conditions are present, it could trigger severe weather, he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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