For more than 100 years the letters SOS have served as a distress signal for someone urgently needing help.
Originally it was an alert of life-threatening problems on the high seas. But it has taken on a new meaning in Belmont County, where SOS has come to mean "Securing Our Students" and an almost yearlong $90,000 project to accomplish that has almost been completed in five county school systems
And hopefully in the near future a project to expand the program to the remaining schools in the county will be undertaken. Belmont County Emergency Management officials have filed necessary documents to obtain a federal Homeland Security grant to expand it to the remaining high schools in the county.
Since early this year the Formost Safety Solutions firm of Macedonia, Ohio, has been working on the $90,000 project for "color coding" five high schools. That doesn't mean schools are being painted different colors. The system calls for installing different numbers, symbols or letters in the various sections of the school to provide first responders to immediate information on the location of the emergency situation.
Dave Ivan, county EMA director, described it as a "first responders navigation system." In other words when fire or medical personnel arrive at a school the symbols prominently displayed in the schools will direct them to the location of the problem.
"We're putting the finishing touches on the system right now. It should be completed in the next week or two or at least before the end of the year. The five high schools where the system has been installed are Martins Ferry, St. Clairsville, the Belmont Career Center, Union Local and Barnesville.
In the near future Ivan expects approval of another Homeland Security grant to complete the color coding system in the remaining high schools - Bridgeport, Shadyside and Bellaire.
Casting ballots in the ease and comfort of their homes is becoming more and more popular with Belmont County residents.
Almost one-third of those who voted in the November general election, 7,082, did so by absentee ballot - the voting method that has been soundly endorsed and recommended by Belmont County Board of Elections officials.
That absentee vote is by no means a record, but when it is combined with the 14,528 who voted at the polls, it adds up to a total of 21,610, which is a record 44.77 percent turnout of the registered voters in Belmont County. Quite an accomplishment in an off-year election.
Since more people are taking the advice of election board officials to vote absentee, elections board director Bill Shubat doesn't need a crystal ball to predict even greater numbers will turn out for the presidential election next year.
"I'm figuring 25,000 will vote by absentee ballots in the 2012 presidential election," Shubat declared. That would be an all-time record because it would eclipse the 14,210 who cast absentee ballots in 2008 when Barack Obama won out over John McCain.
But there is a behind the scenes plan from the state level that could result in a greater number of people voting absentee than Shubat is predicting. "The secretary of state is considering mailing out absentee ballot applications to every voter in the state. If that happens," Shubat asserted, "it would make a big difference in the number of people voting by absentee ballot."
By receiving an application in the mail, a voter could cast his ballot in the 2012 general election without ever having to leave his home. After getting the application from the state, the individual would then mail the completed form to the Belmont County Board of Elections to receive an absentee ballot by mail. The completed ballot could then be sent back to the board and the voter will have performed his voting obligation without having to go to make a trip to the election board or to a polling place.
A precinct-by-precinct breakdown of the votes cast in the November general election showed there were a greater number of absentee ballots cast at some precincts than there were voters who did so in person. One good example was in St. Clairsville. In three of the city's seven precincts, the absentee votes Mayor Bob Vincenzo received totaled more than those who voted at the polls. Overall, the mayor received 588 absentee votes and 604 at the polls to far outdistance his two opponents in his re-election bid.
There were some other interesting facts gleaned from that breakdown - including the trouncing the Issue 2 proposal received that wasn't wholly reflected just from a glimpse of the final vote. Of the total of 70 precincts in the county, only two of them recorded a vote that would have kept intact Senate Bill 5 - the controversial legislation that would have limited collective bargaining by public employees.
Those two precincts were in the St. Claisville area. In Precinct 1A in the city, there were 191who voted for the issue that would deny the collective bargaining while 188 voted "yes" to overturn Senate bill 5, a difference of only three votes. In Richland Township precinct No. 5, the margin was 18 - with 227 voting "no" on the proposal and 209 voting "yes." The other 68 precincts voted solidly to send the Issue 2 proposal down the drain by a final vote in the Belmont County of 21,322 to 14,704.
Then there were votes cast in some contests that did not help anyone. For instance, in the St. Clairsville-Richland School District Board of Education contest, there was a write-in space for just one candidate who had filed the necessary application to be a certified candidate. As a result, F. William Zanders tallied 111 write-in votes to gain the board seat.
In that same contest, there were another 108 write-in votes cast that went for naught because there was no other certified write-in candidate. Shubat said voters may have written in anyone's name or perhaps just darkened the block where the write-in space appeared. Whatever the case, the votes are automatically counted even though they cannot be credited to any one individual.
Another odd race was recorded in York Township, where Dawn Lee was elected fiscal officer with just 12 votes. There were another 34 write-in votes cast but since no one filled out the required form at the election board signifying their intention of being a write-in candidate, those votes were wasted.
Much the same thing happened in the East Central Ohio Educational Service Center contest. Donna Shubat was an unopposed candidate and was elected on the basis of the 66 votes she received. But there were a total of 120 write-in votes cast that were wasted because no certified write-in candidate was in the running.
People who patronize the Ohio Valley Mall are going to have some extra time to do their Christmas shopping. During the next two weeks preceding the holiday, the mall will be opening one or two hours earlier than usual and will be closing one or two hours later. During the final week before Christmas the shopping center will be open 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.
There's one less business in downtown St. Clairsville. Vocelli Pizza suddenly closed its doors and went out of business about three weeks ago. Located at 165 W. Main St., it was owned and operated by John and Sherrie McNab. "It was there one day and gone the next," exclaimed John Swan, owner of the building that housed the pizza parlor for many years.
"The only thing I know is the employees were told one day to find other jobs and the business was closed," Swan said. He noted that some of the business equipment is still in the store.
Al Molnar can be reached via email at: email@example.com.