FORT WALTON BEACH — Following an EF-1 tornado that carved a path from Okaloosa Island through Ocean City on Sunday afternoon, public officials in Okaloosa County are doubling down on the importance of smartphone emergency alert systems.
In the event of an emergency, electronic alerts sent to people's smartphones are the only way to notify them about impending severe weather. With the exception of Eglin Air Force Base and Hurlburt Field, there are no tornado sirens in Okaloosa county.
County Director of Public Safety Alvin Henderson said the county relies primarily on smartphone technology and emergency alert systems to blast out severe weather notifications electronically rather than loud mechanical sirens that blare warning tones in a given vicinity.
“There are several reasons,” Henderson said.
“One of the concerns is the fact that a siren provides just one warning,” he said. “And it really doesn’t specify the type of emergency, nor does it provide information on the recommended course of action by the citizens.”
Henderson said in a place like Okaloosa County where many buildings are built to be hurricane-proof, with thick concrete walls and roofs, sirens would be ineffective to transmit sounds through heavy materials.
He also said maintaining sirens is a “very involved process” that requires tower crews, brushes and parts that take several weeks to be delivered and other detailed processes that could deter a siren’s usefulness in case of an emergency.
Henderson said the emergency alert system, including the Ready Okaloosa application, that sends out things like tornado warnings and Amber Alerts, are the best tools available in severe weather.
“We can do broad, county-wide warnings based on the technology that’s in place,” he said. “With the emergency alert system, you can pinpoint an area and alert people in that area rather than a general alert. We can push out an alert and broadcast it to a geo-fenced area, and utilize cellphone towers in the area to push the message out.”
Hurlburt and Eglin use tornado sirens as well as “giant voice warning systems” that broadcast severe threats.
Andy Bourland, the public affairs director at Eglin, said the base command post runs the emergency alert systems. He said warnings are also sent out via text message, senior leaders and emails.
The warnings alert those on base to emergencies including lightning, fires, tornadoes, bomb and shooting threats.
At Hurlburt, a weather warning is a three- to five-minute steady tone or voice announcement.
An attack warning for situations such as an active shooter or bombing, is a three to five-minute wavering tone or voice announcement.
Henderson said despite Okaloosa not having tornado sirens, people should remain vigilant for weather events of any kind.
“A lot of people understand that living in Okaloosa county and the Florida Panhandle, our storms can come upon us fast and furious,” he said. “If you’re outside, keep an eye on your surroundings. If you start to see those storm clouds moving in, make sure you have your phone on you and are ready to receive those alerts.”