Our eyes on the skies

Though tornados threaten the safety of people in the central plains every year, local residents can sleep easier knowing a group of dedicated volunteers are watching out for them when threatening weather develops.

Hillsboro Weather Watch is led by captain Johnnie Liles and co-captain Mona Voth.

These two spearhead a group of about 20 volunteers and storm spotters. Most in the group are city employees, the majority of which have had spotter training.

“If we have severe weather in the immediate area, we just don’t take a chance,” Liles said.

By the time most of residents first hear about potentially dangerous weather, the Hillsboro Weather Watch network has been monitoring the situation for some time.

“We usually get a notification from the sheriff’s office, but sometimes we don’t wait for that call if we think the skies are looking bad enough,” Liles said. “Someone will come to the Scout House to cover our bases.”

Located in Memorial Park, the Scout House is home to the “command center,” which is the heart of severe weather notification in Hillsboro.

The Scout House was chosen for the command center because city hall offers no protection from a violent storm, Liles said.

“We normally already have our staff here and the storm spotter out by the time the police call us,” he said.

Added Voth: “It gets real serious when a storm approaches.”

Understanding the language of the National Weather Service is essential to understanding the steps that are followed by the Hillsboro Weather Watch team.

A tornado “watch” is issued when weather conditions are favorable for the formation of tornados.

“If there’s activity with the watch that’s issued, we send our spotters out,” Liles said. “If there’s no activity with a watch, we won’t send them out just yet.”

The situation is much more serious when the NWS issues a tornado “warning.”

“When a warning is issued for our area, we’ll definitely send our spotters out and we’re on high alert,” Liles said.

“We have six locations that we send spotters,” he added. “Determining the direction the weather is coming from will determine the first area we locate our spotters.

Voth said: “We always have at least two sets of spotters out, and we try to always have at least two spotters per team, so the weather doesn’t come up from behind them. We get an extra set of eyes out there that way.”

The spotters are notified through a chain of command call, either on their radios, with which city vehicles are equipped, or in the case of a night-time storm, by telephone.

While the spotters take their position in rural locations around Hillsboro, the team that mans the command center also springs into action.

“The command center has a complete set of communications radios, including a ham radio, business band, high band and CB, a generator backup, battery back-up system and two telephones,” Liles said. “A television is also monitored to keep abreast of the radar.”

All equipment is serviced at least once a year.

“It takes two people, at a very minimum, to staff the command center,” Voth said. “When we arrive, the first thing we do is start the generator. In case a storm takes out the city power, we already have a backup for our power supply to our radios and other equipment.

Next in the chain of responsibility is to notify the hospital, care centers and schools if it’s the time of day and the time of year school is in session.

“We want to make sure they are aware there is severe weather in the area,” Voth said.

Another function of those in the command center is keeping track of where the spotters are situated and which vehicles they’re driving.

“If there is tornadic activity in the area, we follow that very closely,” Liles said. “If there is any question at all, we’ll sound the siren. We don’t want to cry wolf.”

The sirens can be activated from either the Scout House, or city hall.

Sirens are tested on a weekly basis. At noon each Monday, the siren is blown for a 15-second interval.

Either Liles, Voth or the Hillsboro police department is responsible for sounding the sirens.

The city of Hillsboro is equipped with eight sirens placed in strategic locations. Of the eight, one is located in the industrial park east of town.

“These sirens are exterior,” Liles said. “They’re not designed to be heard in the home, but with the siren saturation we have, we can nearly notify everyone, even in their home.”

All but three of the sirens are run by electricity. Two sirens are backed up by batteries, and one is generator operated. A designated city employee starts the “siren generator” at the same time the Scout House generator is activated.

“If the electricity goes off, we still have three sirens,” Liles said.

Voth said people should take cover immediately when they hear the sirens.

“Don’t go outside and look for the storm,” she said. “That’s the worst thing you can do.”

Liles agreed.

“Sirens are for tornados and the sirens are for take-cover only,” he said. “There is no forewarning. When we blow the siren, the people had better take cover.”

“Don’t go outside and rubberneck,” he added. “The whistle blows until the danger has passed. There is no all-clear whistle.”

While everyone naturally is curious about how bad the storm is and where it’s headed, Voth emphasized the last thing residents should do is call city hall for information during a crisis situation.

“Listen to your radio or your television,” she said. “I also recommend that people have weather radios that have the alarm on them. They’ll wake you in the middle of the night if the storm warrants it.”

Voth also stressed it’s a good idea to have a home safety kit in your tornado safety shelter.

Tornados travel an average speed of 35 mph, but can move as fast as 70 mph.

A person usually has less than five minutes from the first sighting until the tornado is at your location.

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