Editor’s Note: The following announcement comes from Hennepin County Emergency Management.
Motorists driving into a tornado warning in Hennepin and Ramsey counties’ will receive roadside alerts, thanks to a new collaboration between county emergency management divisions, ClearChannel Outdoor and the National Weather Service.
A new system, tested in downtown Minneapolis today, will make use of ClearChannel Outdoor commercial digital billboards to warn drivers of a tornado warning in their vicinity. The goal of the partnership is to offer early warning and new training to drivers, who may be unable to hear tornado sirens inside their cars, or who may not be listening to radio stations that would warn them of a safety threat. The concept takes advantage of drivers’ natural conditioning to absorb the content on roadside signs.
Motorists and their passengers have proven to be a difficult audience to reach when severe weather strikes. According to the National Weather Service, 9 percent of the people who were killed by tornadoes in the United States between 1985 and 2008 were in their cars.
From now on, a National Weather Service-issued tornado warning will trip a targeted system to override commercial programming, starting in 15-minute increments, which can be extended if necessary. The company owns 22 of the billboards in Hennepin County and nine in Ramsey County. Eventually, the hope is to expand the alerts to all 47 of the billboards around the metro area.
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat saluted the partnership, and predicted that the signs will be a powerful tool to reach motorists.
“I’ve been struck by how many of these signs I see on my commute up and down I-94,” he said. “I certainly notice them, and I think other drivers do too.”
Noting the traditional difficulty alerting drivers to severe weather, Hennepin County Emergency Management Director Eric Waage called the billboards another tool to reach them.
“They’ll be able to become aware of what’s happening around them, and take actions that could save their lives,” he said.
Especially in areas that have a lot of foot traffic, such as the Eighth Street and Hennepin Avenue intersection downtown, where they were tested, the billboards also could prove important in the effort to channel pedestrians to safety.
ClearChannel Outdoor is providing the service at no cost to the county.
The Company’s president, Susan Adams Loyd, said the partnership is a logical step after previous collaborations with the city of Minneapolis to spread the word of Snow Emergency declarations, and with the State Patrol to encourage seat belt use. It’s also an opportunity to give back to the community.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Adams Loyd said. “It strengthens our commitment to the community where our employees live and where we do business.”
Officials also hope to divert drivers’ attention from immediate trouble, such as rain or hail, and focus it on the more severe danger of an oncoming tornado.
Minnesota State Patrol Lt. Eric Roeske emphasized the importance for drivers to be aware of their surroundings and the conditions in which they are driving. If a threat exists, he said, drivers should get out of their vehicles as quickly as possible and into safe shelter. In open areas, he said they should drive away from a tornado, at a right angle to the storm’s path, or move a safe distance from the car and into a low-lying area, where they should lie face-down, protecting their heads and necks.
Still, he said, awareness is the most important tool drivers have. “Don’t put yourself in a vulnerable position,” he said.
Digital signage in Light Rail Transit stations also is equipped for written and audio warnings.