'Do we have a plan?' Belleville alderwoman reacts to tornado sirens

News-DemocratMay 31, 2013 

— Tornado sirens sounded Thursday evening in Belleville, even though most of the danger was 25 miles away. But the sirens were not enough to cancel a meeting going on in City Hall.

"I said, 'What do we do?' The first thing, the mayor got down off his chair and went and talked to the police chief and he and the assistant chief went to the dispatch room to find out where the tornado was. That's not the first thing you do," said Alderwoman Lillian Schneider.

The city needs a plan for what to do when people are inside City Hall during threatening weather, Schneider said. Thursday night could have been an opportunity to show the residents who attend meetings how to get to safety in the basement.

"If you have older people or if you have handicapped people, there's going to be mass confusion, and last night would have been a good practice drill because there wasn't a lot of people there," Schneider said.

Mayor Mark Eckert said City Hall has an elevator to help the elderly and disabled travel to the basement.

Schneider said, as an alderwoman, she is unaware of emergency plans for tornadoes.

"We're telling the people to have a plan; do we have a plan? If we do, we don't know about it... If we do, it shouldn't be a secret until the last minute," Schneider said.

Eckert said a plan is in place and he followed it during the meeting by speaking with the police chief and dispatcher to find out if the people in the building were in danger. He said there was no immediate danger to the people in the building so there was no reason to go to the basement.

"We take it very seriously. We wouldn't keep people in a building with glass windows if there was danger. ... We've emptied it out before," Eckert said.

Ron Przybylinski, science officer for the St. Louis Weather Service, said reports indicate a micoburst caused some damage in Marissa, in and around the City Park. Officials do not believe that a tornado touched down. Also, there was some tree damage in O'Fallon and Trenton and hard rain in Belleville, he said.

Nevertheless, the sirens blasted across the county, from Belleville to O'Fallon and Fairview Heights. The St. Clair County Emergency Service and Disaster Agency sounds the sirens for the entire county when a confirmed sighting has been reported by a first responder to warn towns that a tornado is on the move, said Herb Simmons, 911 director at St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency.

A firefighter called in the sighting of a funnel cloud in Marissa, triggering the sirens.

Simmons said Fairview Heights has its own sirens, and officials called ESDA Thursday night to ask whether they should sound their alarms, too.

If a tornado had approached Belleville last night, Eckert said department heads and emergency staff members have been trained to follow the emergency plans. Those staff members would have taken charge, he said.

Not all aldermen have been trained to follow the emergency plans, especially new aldermen, Eckert said. He said City Council members may be discussing the possibility of training new members on emergency preparedness soon.

"I've been an alderman for two years," Schneider said. "I think this should've happened a long time ago."

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