Weather System Failed la Plata; Technology Proved flawed.(METROPOLITAN)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 22, 2002 | Go to article overview

Weather System Failed la Plata; Technology Proved flawed.(METROPOLITAN)


Byline: Chris Baker, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Local radio stations did not receive a warning about the April 28 tornado that leveled parts of La Plata, Md., because the National Weather Service technology designed to alert them about dangerous weather failed.

Stations rely on the weather service to trigger a process that activates the Emergency Alert System, which is used two ways: to warn radio station staffers of severe weather, which disc jockeys announce on the air; or to automatically interrupt radio programming with voice warnings that originate with the National Weather Service.

Radio is the best way to warn automobile drivers of dangerous storms, the stations say. Now, the broadcasters are pressing the weather service to improve the technology.

"Let me put it this way: I've been working here since 1989, and I've never seen a failure like [the one on April 28]," said Barbara Watson, the weather service's warning coordination meteorologist.

The service uses a different, satellite-based system to alert local television stations and cable networks of weather warnings. Several local television meteorologists said their weather-warning systems worked well on the day of the Southern Maryland tornado.

The weather service also broadcasts warnings through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration radio service, which many radio stations also receive. However, because the April 28 tornado occurred on a Sunday evening, most local music stations essentially were running on automatic pilot, with no staffers present to hear the NOAA report and broadcast the warnings.

"We rely on the Emergency Alert System. [This incident] makes broadcasters look bad," said John Matthews, director of engineering for Radio One Inc., which owns seven music stations in the Washington area, including WMMJ (102.3 FM) and WKYS (93.9 FM).

The National Weather Service, based in Sterling, Va., said the problem could be fixed by the middle of the fall.

After the National Weather Service issues a serious weather warning, it sends a "digital burst" onto a telephone line to a transmitter in Manassas, which sends the signal to all-news radio station WTOP (1500 and 820 AM, 107.7 FM) in the District.

The burst is a series of codes that spells out the reason for the weather warning, the region that will be affected and the length of time the warning will be in effect.

WTOP receives the burst with a special machine that prints the codes onto a piece of paper the size of a cash register receipt. The station is responsible for reading the codes and activating the Emergency Alert System, which is used to warn staffers at other stations - who then alert listeners - or to automatically interrupt programming.

WTOP is designated to activate the Emergency Alert System because it is one of the few local stations manned 24 hours a day. …

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