Sound the sirens – and take a step back

ColumnistMarch 9, 2017 

Social media…

At its best, it can share stories of triumph, collect money for those stricken with disaster, find homes for stray dogs and bring people together in a way we could have never foreseen.

At its worst, it can vilify a fire department with an impeccable record in one of the safest suburbs in America.

And when the latter happens, it truly is ugly.

Lee’s Summit suffered through its second tornado in just 20 months this past Monday night. The severe storms that surrounded the brief touchdown off Chipman Road were truly a force of Mother Nature, too, with high winds, hail and the threat of rotation and tornadoes.

The thing is, at the time, we didn’t know we had a tornado touch down in our area, not at least until the next day when the National Weather Service announced its findings (based in part on damage path and debris) that an EF1 tornado packing up to 108 mile-per-hour winds zig-zagged down Chipman Road for a few minutes.

Our Lee’s Summit Fire Department had a split-second decision to make on the night of March 6 as the National Weather Service put our part of Jackson County in a Tornado Warning: flip the switch that sounds the 33 sirens in Lee’s Summit. Or don’t.

Using their Standards of Operating Guidelines, the decision was made to not run the outdoor warning system in Lee’s Summit. Meaning none of the 33 sirens sounded that night.

It was a night that was chaotic and tested the mettle of every fireman, captain, communications employee and EMS worker from here to Smithville to Oak Grove.

Would the fire department personnel have made a different decision that night around 8 p.m. if they had known a funnel was about to drop down near John Knox Village? You better believe they would have.

Is the vitriol and venom put forth toward our men and women in uniform and City Hall warranted? Not even remotely.

Consider the pandemonium from Monday night: During the storm, Lee’s Summit Fire took on 21 calls in the city limits. On top of above-average call load, two ambulance units were sent to Oak Grove for mutual aid to assist in what was the very early stages of havoc that small community faced after being pounded by an EF3 tornado.

Couple those factors with the knowledge that Lee’s Summit’s communication team handles all dispatch calls for Sni-Valley Fire Protection District – which is Oak Grove.

Our department was certainly doing everything in its training to take care of not only those in Lee’s Summit, but trying to help a devastating situation to the northeast of town. It could be said that our communications team was carrying the weight of the storm the entire night.

Unlike the tornado that dropped down near Tudor and Douglas July 1, 2015, a lack of visual of a funnel near Lee’s Summit, at night, most definitely played into the decision to not sound the sirens.

Lee’s Summit Fire officials were in contact with the NWS, as they always are, every step of the way. A decision at that moment to not run the sirens shouldn’t wipe away the concerted and responsible work they put in all day. And working into the next day to survey damage with NWS officials.

I can imagine the reaction of fire officials once they learned that an ED1 had been through a 2-mile stretch of town. That fact doesn’t change the ongoing need for residents to arm themselves with as many weapons as possible to be singularly responsible for your safety: situational awareness, weather radios, weather apps and Nixle among them.

The barrage of hateful messages was stunning to see. It’s almost like we are asking fire and city officials to be even more in tune with the unpredictable weather patterns of the Midwest than the trained meteorologists.

The unfortunate and rare tornado does have a silver lining though: the fire department will be looking at its SOG and will certainly reconsider similar situations as they come up in the future.

The Lee’s Summit Fire Department has 153 sworn and non-sworn employees working at seven stations. The fire department is going to protect you. It’s all these men and women think about.

The words of Fire Chief Rick Poeschl ring true, “Everything we do, we are looking at the best way to serve the citizens – it’s above everything else in our minds.”

Because like all of us, the employees of our city and fire department have an expectation of public safety.

“We’re protecting our families, too,” Assistant Chief Jim Eden said.

Lee’s Summit resident John Beaudoin writes about city and civic issues, people and personalities around town. Reach him at johnbeaudoin4@gmail.com .

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