In the operations room at the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office annex, Enid/Garfield County Emergency Management Director Mike Honigsberg is surrounded by radar and radio equipment to deal with a crisis when severe weather threatens.
But the most valuable piece of technology is Honigsberg’s brain and judgment, developed over 25 years on the job dealing with life-and-death situations.
“If you are in an emotional state, you are going to make bad decisions,’’ Honigsberg said. “We try to stay as calm as possible as we relay information back and forth to make the best decisions that we can during a tornado. I’m calmer at this point in my life than I was back then ... I have a little more wisdom.
“I’ve always told people the only time you need to panic is when I’m panicking. If I’m panicking, we are out of here.’’
Honigsberg’s first duty is to keep people safe and secure, but said he is concerned television coverage often scares people instead of educating them.
“When they scare people, guess who gets the phone calls?” Honigsberg asked. “We do. It takes away from our duties here to calm them down. They often say so and so said this and that and often you have to tell them that’s not going on right now. It causes additional stress. I feel if TV stations do more teaching instead of panicking people, it will resolve a little bit of fear.’’
Honigsberg uses technology to keep people informed before the storm “so people don’t freak out so much.’’
“We will put out information the best we can,’’ Honigsberg said. “If a tornadic storm is moving towards the area, we will sound the sirens accordingly. We coordinate that with all the towns around us. People often will ask, ‘Should I sound the sirens?’ I would say if I was in your shoes, I would base it on our spotters.’’
He said spotters are human and are trying their best to stay calm.
The experience of 911 dispatchers has been invaluable to his efforts.
“They are very good at what they do,’’ Honigsberg said. “If we need them to help us with the stuff, they make it happen. We’re one gigantic team in public safety in Garfield County. People can rest assured we’re on the job.’’
National Weather Service puts out warnings at various risk levels. When the threat goes from moderate to high, that’s when Honigsberg’s office starts paying more attention.
He uses Facebook and the GCEM app to get the word out and NWS pushes information through the app. Honisberg is on several programs with the weather service out of Norman.
“We stay with them to keep people informed,’’ Honigsberg said.
In the operations room, there is a state-of-the-art radar. Honigsberg goes through certification each year to maintain it.
In case of an emergency, Honigsberg would be joined by Enid Police Department and Garfield County Sheriff’s Office to coordinate with a network of storm spotters consisting of rural fire departments, police officers and deputies, among others.
Honigsberg estimates from 150 to 200 potential spotters are involved in an operation.
During a severe weather event, one person would stay on the computer relaying information to NWS.
“We’re all talking to each other,’’ Honigsberg said. “The beauty of it is they all report what they are seeing here. Information is flowing back and forth all of the time.’’
His office also has two backups if internet access is lost.
“Even then, we would still have two-way communication,’’ Honigsberg said. “I encourage people to listen to their local FM radio stations. We provide a radio for them to listen to our people in the field, too, as they can pass the information along. If they want us to go on the air with them, we will do that, too, if something is not pressing at the time.’’
He said rural fire departments are available for search-and-rescue depending on where damage has occurred.
Should Honigsberg’s building take a direct hit, the crew would go to a safe room called the Armory at the other end of the building.
“If we took a hit here, we can still do what we do from our mobile vehicles,’’ Honigsberg said. “I’ve got multiple antennas on my truck and multiple radars. Hopefully, everything is not destroyed.’’
Spotters, Honigsberg said, can be even more valuable than a radar system in spotting a tornado. If a tornado is spotted on the ground, the information is sent to National Weather Service.
“We can tell them we have a tornado on the ground and such and such,’’ Honigsberg said. “They will put out a warning based on that information, even though it hasn’t shown up on radar yet. We trust each other with what’s going on. We won’t put out false information. We’re not in competition with the weather service. We work with them very, very closely. We trust the weather service for warnings. We don’t have the level of technology that they do, which is OK. We rely on each other for information.’’
Television coverage is monitored but with no sound. It is forbidden to turn up the TV in the room during an emergency.
“We only have that on there for the video they provide at times,’’ Honigsberg said. “During the day with helicopters, that’s gold for information. That helps us immensely, but the sound is forbidden because we don’t need to hear the drama.’’
Continual upgradesAs part of his continuing efforts, Honigsberg said old storm sirens are being replaced with voice capable sirens.
“We will make a voice announcement on that system to let people know that we have tornado weather coming,’’ Honigsberg said. “If we have a tornado on the ground that reaches the Drummond area, Drummond is in the line, Waukomis is in the line and Lahoma is on the line to the west. If Enid is affected, it will sound off the sirens because we have the time to react to get people where they need to go.’’
No new technology has been purchased in recent years. Honigsberg said “everything is working pretty good.’’
Wind farms around the county have affected some radar readings. One can see echoes between Kremlin and Hunter, Breckenridge and Garber and even in the southeastern part of the county.
“When a line of storms is coming, we know what is real and what isn’t,’’ Honigsberg said.
Storm spotters will keep an “eye on things and will call us if they think it’s suspicious.’’
Honigsberg used to use storm chasers, but stopped because he said they were becoming more of a liability, especially at night when spotting is “extremely dangerous.’’
“We have spotters all over the county,’’ Honigsberg said. “They are there to warn the rural area in case something is going on. There are no storm sirens out there.’’
Because storm sirens are outdoor devices people might not hear them, unless they are close to one, especially if they are inside their home, he said.
“Don’t rely on storm sirens before you make a decision to take cover,’’ Honigsberg said. “If you watch TV, watch TV. If you listen to the radio, listen to the radio. If you have our app, pay attention.’’
The office has made a number of innovations with the app.
“We can voice a tone on our phone when we send an advisory or warning that comes out over a different tone than normal notifications,’’ Honigsberg said. “It just went into effect a month ago.’’
That system is tested every Wednesday and the phone will have a specific tone.
“You have to understand the tone is there for a reason,’’ he said.
The app can be downloaded from the Apple Store or from Google Play.
Make a plan
Honigsberg said he has had to deal with an old legend that says Enid will never be hit by a tornado.
“I don’t believe in legends,’’ he said. “You just deal with the reality of it. We just deal with the reality of it and hope it never happens. If it does, we will deal with it and move on.’’
Honigsberg had built up the command center before even moving into the sheriff’s office annex, after being at Enid Fire Department. He can communicate with other counties from there.
His office has put out a family preparedness guide that can be loaded off the internet.
“One thing people need to understand is that making a plan for yourself at home is not hard,’’ Honigsberg said. “It doesn’t have to be hundreds of pages like we have to in government.’’
He urges families to get together to plan what to do in case of a tornado, fire or earthquake.
“If you don’t prepare for anything until the day of the storm it’s not a good thing,’’ he said. “Emotional decision-making is a bad thing, especially when horrible things are going on out there. Knowledge is power.’’
He said much of the planning can be common sense. If a person’s plan is to go to a friend’s house with a shelter across town, don’t wait until the storm gets here.
“By the time it hits you, it could be too late,’’ Honigsberg said. “You don’t want to be out and about with debris flying around. You don’t know what it could be.’’
The department’s app gives advisories in both the morning and afternoon.
“A storm could be hitting around Custer County, and those storms could be moving toward us,’’ he said. “We can tell you what to expect.’’
Honigsberg got his training from the University of Oklahoma through the OK-First program. He was in on the beginning in 1997.
Koch Industries gave Honigsberg $4,000 in the past year, and he bought a few radios with it to fill in gaps for communications purposes.
“I still haven’t spent all that money yet,’’ he said. “I’m frugal with that. I don’t like to waste even donated money. I have to justify what I’m spending on communication devices. It was very important that we bought some radios for people to communicate. If you can’t communicate with people, you have a problem.’’
He said there is a county protocol for communications to deal with possible emergencies.
If the big tower — with four major repeaters on it — behind his office fell, there are still four other repeaters that could be used.
“So, we have never been in the panic mode where we can’t talk to each other,’’ Honigsberg said. “The generator has a backup, too. If we lose power, our communication would still work.’’
Honigsberg said it will always be a team effort.
“I can’t sit here and do everything,’’ he said. “We work together as a team. That’s what is important. If we need people in an area, we make it happen.’’