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Indiana County earns weather service designation as 'Storm Ready'

by CHAUNCEY ROSS chauncey@indianagazette.net on June 13, 2013 11:00 AM

Word of nasty weather has little trouble getting around, when it starts early enough.

It’s said to grow legs, and travel on its own power — for example, the prediction of thunderstorms and heavy rain that emerged Tuesday and was on everyone’s lips by Wednesday.

But when severe weather draws a bead on Indiana County, sometimes so suddenly that advance word could hardly be called a forecast, the Indiana County Emergency Management Agency can be counted on to alert everyone.

For that, officials of the National Weather Service saluted the county’s emergency management agency and recognized Indiana County as a “Storm Ready” county at the semimonthly meeting of the board of commissioners.

The “Storm Ready” designation acknowledges the county’s commitment to the safety of its residents, said Rich Kane, the meteorologist-in-charge of the weather service’s regional office in Moon Township.

The status also qualifies the area for reduced flood insurance premiums by improving its ratings points, officials said.

“By having a hazard mitigation plan for the county, this will help us with the national flood insurance program at the municipal levels,” said Thomas Stutzman, director of Indiana County Emergency Management Agency.

“The majority of the municipalities in the county participate in the flood insurance program, so with the county being ‘Storm Ready,’ those municipalities will have the ability to have lower rates,” he said.

Stutzman said the weather service and Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) evaluated the county’s weather response systems and its level of participation in receiving and sending messages.

“We had to go through a process … to recognize that we had in place all the elements needed to provide warnings to the community and to monitor warnings coming in,” Stutzman said.

“Storm Ready” status is good for three years. County officials may apply to the weather service to have it extended.

“This is a program that helps communities, counties, schools and agencies ... to become better prepared,” Kane said. “Being able to disseminate our warnings is fantastic. What it does is alert everybody, especially those involved in emergency preparedness.”

Kane said testing plans, for example through table-top exercises, helps counties to be prepared for bad weather.

Having the “Skywarn” volunteer weather observation and reporting program in place helps the weather service to issue its warnings, according to Kane.

“But one thing I have to emphasize — ‘Storm Ready’ does not mean storm proof,” Kane said.

“Indiana County is no stranger to severe weather and it’s not a question of ‘if’ Indiana County will see flash flooding, strong thunderstorms, or damaging winds or ‘if’ Indiana County will get another tornado, because it will. It’s a question of ‘when’ it will happen. No one should take the weather for granted,” he said.

In other business, the commissioners:

• Agreed to assume one-third of the cost of maintenance for switching equipment for a regional emergency communication system, currently arranged to serve Indiana, Westmoreland and Armstrong counties.

Indiana County is the first to act on the agreement, Stutzman said. The agreement hinges on approval by boards of commissioners in Westmoreland and Armstrong before June 30 to share the remaining two-thirds of the cost, estimated at about $1.8 million through Dec. 31, 2021.

Stutzman said Indiana County’s share of the costs would change as other counties are served by the equipment and assume proportionate shares of the expense.

“This has the potential in the future to be renegotiated as new members come on to the board,” Stutzman said. “It could be very quickly, but as they are coming on, this MOU (memo of understanding) would be updated to reflect the division of the cost-sharing among the new members.”

The switch, a bank of electronic equipment made by Motorola, is housed in Westmoreland County.

Commissioner Chairman Rodney Ruddock said the other counties of southwestern Pennsylvania are being encouraged to join in the agreement.

• Approved a change order with Salsgiver Telecom to extend 12 strands of fiberoptic communication lines between ICEMA headquarters offices and a nearby radio tower base at a cost of $1,598. Replacing existing copper wires with fiberoptic lines eliminates service disruptions attributed to lightning strikes, Stutzman said.

• Designated the Indiana County Community Action Program to decide from which vendors to buy food through the state food purchase program, rather than to sign on with a single vendor and have no ability to compare prices in the coming grant year.

• Approved a revision in a grant-funded contract between Indiana Borough and Mackin Engineering Co., of Pittsburgh, increasing by $3,928.80 the cost of services for review of the language of the borough’s TND Overlay District Ordinance. The total cost of the contract increases to $10,408.80.

• Appointed James B. Struzzi II as one of the county’s representatives to the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission. Struzzi, who was hired in April as president of the Indiana County Chamber of Commerce, succeeds retired chamber leader Dana Henry as a delegate to SPC. The county’s representatives also include Byron Stauffer, director of the county Office of Planning and Development, and commissioners Ruddock, David Frick and Patricia Evanko.

• Announced that the courthouse will be closed Friday in observance of Flag Day and on July 4 for Independence Day. The commissioners have canceled the scheduled meeting of June 26 and will next meet for business on July 10.

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