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Archive for Sunday, August 6, 2006

Technology boosts tornado warning systems

Text messages can inform people in the path of a severe storm

August 6, 2006

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— The sounds instantly signal danger: the wail of an outdoor tornado siren or the insistent pitch of the Emergency Broadcast System.

For years those sounds, along with local weather radio, have been the main ways people have learned about nearby emergencies and what to do about them. But new technologies, including text messaging and Voice-over-Internet-Protocol, are giving people new ways to get information.

That's giving emergency responders new ways to communicate more specific information faster to people facing weather and other disasters. It's also creating challenges in how to set up new systems.

"Literally, we live and die by information," said Dan Hay, operations branch chief for the Kansas Division of Emergency Management.

Many tornado alley counties and states are inching toward new, better integrated hazard alert systems. The federal government is also trying to coordinate new warning systems.

In Wichita, Kan., for example, ever since the city set up its outdoor siren system in the late 1940s, the procedure's been the same: When a tornado warning is in effect, all of the city's roughly 90 sirens sound off. As a result, people in west Wichita sometimes end up seeking haven when a tornado is spotted out east, even if the storm is well out of their path.

That sort of system creates false alarms and teaches people to ignore warnings, experts warn, so many counties are upgrading to systems that will sound sirens only in areas facing real danger.

But advances in technology have created new opportunities to inform people about impending disasters. With text messaging, for example, people can be told not only that a disaster is happening, but also which direction they should go to escape it. Reverse 9-1-1 calling systems could call all cell phones within a target area with important information. Targeted messages to Internet addresses could push information to people with broadband access.

The potential is bringing congressional attention to the issue. A bill sponsored by Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., would start a National Alert Office that would coordinate telecommunications and broadcast companies to create a warning system using all types of communications technology. The bill allocates $106 million to get the system up and running.

The proposal, which would encourage but not require companies to participate, is getting backing on Capitol Hill, but some communications safety experts wonder whether the government needs to lead more forcefully, possibly by mandating a new alert system.

"One of the biggest challenges in creating an effective system is to ask people to put aside their fragile egos to make public safety the bottom line," said Steven Jones, executive director of the First Responders Coalition, an organization that educates the public on the needs of law enforcement, firefighters and other disaster responders. "The federal government needs to cooperate with stakeholders, with industry, with first-responders to develop a road map that sets us on the right path."

Hay said he can envision such new technologies coming to Kansas and surrounding states in the next decade. For now, the focus is on bolstering the broadcast technologies that have the greatest reach, especially over rural areas, in part for budgetary reasons.

"The states can't deliver unless they're pushed a lot of money to do it," Hay said, "and many of our counties are on shoestring budgets."

But the number of potential lives saved from better warning systems makes the pursuit of such systems worthwhile.

"Weather hits us fast out here," Hay said. "You need all the warning you can get."

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