From PLANT’s print edition: Weather emergencies

Is your plant prepared when a severe storm strikes?

February 19, 2013   by Tim Means

No two emergency situations are alike. Lightning striking a commercial hydroponic farm is different from a lightning strike at a fireworks factory. And while some variables can’t be accounted for, such as why a tornado hit this house and missed the one next to it, planning and preparation helps keep it together when extreme weather strikes.

Start by categorizing threatening events according to how quickly potential danger arises. Slow onset events such as climate change, soil erosion and droughts demand less expedient notification and action. It’s the rapid onset events that put pressure on emergency notification planners and systems.

Tornados, hailstorms and winter ice storms are among the most sudden and unpredictable of nature’s weather disruptions. Canada experiences an average of 80 tornados a year, most between May and September, according to Environment Canada. There are more twisters in the US, many of them forming in a central area known as Tornado Alley, which extends through Ontario and the Prairies.

Environment Canada notes southern Ontario, southwestern Quebec, Alberta, and a band stretching from southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba through to Thunder Bay, Ont. are prone to violent storms. The interior of BC and western New Brunswick are also tornado zones.

Hailstorms present another major danger. According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, a Calgary storm in 2010 set a record for damage after a bombardment of hailstones measuring nearly four-centimetres wide and a storm that hit the city in 1998 caused a warehouse to collapse. Two years earlier, a storm knocked out 911 service.

And let’s not forget one of the most severe winter storms in recent memory. The “Storm of the Millennium” in January 1998 killed 25 people and left millions without power, some of them for weeks. The Financial Post estimated damage at $500 million and losses from interrupted production at billions of dollars.

Planning ahead for these emergencies is key. Create emergency plans for shutting down equipment and getting your people to storm shelters, but also practice and update them regularly.

Monitor weather conditions on a day-to-day basis. Events can occur in hours, even minutes. There may be long lead time indicators of an earthquake or hurricane, but the actual temblor or flooding can happen unexpectedly. The best source for warning of rapid onset weather events is WeatherRadio Canada or NOAA Weather Radio in the US. Both systems are government-operated warning systems that push alerts out over the weather band to dedicated radios on towers across the country. Alerts are in the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) format, which are automatically understood by a variety of emergency notification systems.

When a severe event is detected, notify your people and set your emergency plans in motion. Consider how you alert everyone; how you tell them what to do; and how they notify you.

Action plan
Emergency notification in a large facility with hundreds of people will be more involved than telling everyone to “shelter in place.” Work out where each group will take shelter, how they will get there in a safe and orderly fashion and establish a way to quickly notify everyone in the plant to initiate emergency procedures.

Old emergency notification systems were based on sirens designed to evacuate buildings. Modern systems run on easy-to-use software that features voice notification and sends different alerts to different parts of the facility. This allows emergency and plant managers to broadcast specific instructions. Alerts are planned and programmed in advance so the plant manager can send them in seconds, with a few clicks of the mouse.

Systems also integrate with a variety of diverse technologies. For example, sensors that detect and report non-weather-emergencies such as hazardous spills can also be monitored and pulled into the software. Systems often feature an inbound emergency call for help feature as well. Hitting a button immediately transmits the location of the trouble spot, and connects with security or other personnel via a live voice link.

Emergencies do not discriminate. Having plans in place for the most common, destructive, rapid-onset weather disruptions will go a long way toward keeping your people and plant safe.

Tim Means is the director of product management, Metis Secure Solutions, an Oakmont, Pa. supplier of emergency notifications systems. Visit

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