The Ottumwa Courier

December 10, 2013

Job Corps is ready; are you?

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — As winter approaches, a location in Ottumwa has become one of only six places in the state to be certified "StormReady."

Officials from the National Weather Service recognized the Ottumwa Job Corps center as one of their StormReady Supporters. Mark Douglas, center director, said the local Job Corps is the first in the United States to be certified.

"Our safety officer, Chris Fisher, assesses safety compliance at the center," Douglas said Tuesday. "This whole storm readiness [initiative] was his idea. It's a pretty big deal."

A former firefighter trained as an EMT, Fisher tries to train staff and students before there is an emergency. He also inspects various job training programs regularly to ensure compliance with OSHA and other federal entities. Yet it was his status as a longtime storm spotter that clued him into this extremely detailed program.

"You do everything you can to prepare your people," Fisher said, "because you can't control the weather. What we don't want is them [trying to figure] what to do after it hits. We plan and drill, so when something bad does happen, they know what to do until help arrives."

The National Weather Service really has this program organized, he said. Though Douglas said Fisher has been one of the keys to the Ottumwa center's excellent safety record, he said he knows no one can think of everything.

In fact, acknowledges Fisher, when the National Weather Service review committee first went through his weather preparedness plan, they sent it back to him.

"They said I missed a couple of things," he said. "They did a site evaluation and made some [location specific] recommendations."

He accepted the critique, was glad they found what no one had previously thought about, and redid the plan. This time, it was approved.

"StormReady Supporters take a new, proactive approach to improving hazardous weather operations, response and preparedness," said Jeff Johnson, Warning Coordination Meteorologist (WCM) at the NWS Forecast Office, Des Moines.

There are still some of the "old standbys" like taking attendance, though it's a bit more organized, with Fisher himself rapidly getting an overall count. That way, if the report totals 181 people accounted for, when he knows there should be 184, he will know what their location should have been. Resources can then be used wisely to go search that area. If everyone is accounted for, with minor injuries that can be handled by EMTs already employed at the center, Fisher can then tell Ottumwa firefighters and other rescue personnel that the Job Corps center is all right for now. In a disaster, that allows Ottumwa to wisely use their resources, too.

It takes some work to get certified, Fisher said, but its not that hard, and safety has been enhanced. For example, to be certified, an organization must have more than one way to receive emergency weather information. Job Corps security officers are able to monitor weather 24 hours through local media and via the Internet. Battery backup weather radios are in multiple locations on center.

"When we have a severe weather watch, I get two texts and four emails," Fisher said, adding that he is then immediately in contact with the center director — unless the director has already called him first.

"If it's lightning, for example, we don't want the kids out running around," Douglas explained.

The program is voluntary and provides businesses and groups with "clear-cut advice," said Johnson, the meteorologist.

Interested in getting in on the StormReady program? You'll need to contact the National Weather Service. But here are the basics:

Establish a 24-hour warning point and emergency operations center.

Have more than one way to receive severe weather forecasts and warnings and to alert the public.

Create a system that monitors local weather conditions.

Promote the importance of public readiness through training and seminars.

Develop a formal hazardous weather plan, which includes specific instructions and protocols in responding to different severe weather hazards.

To follow reporter Mark Newman on Twitter, see @CourierMark