All Hazards Net to warn on more than thunderstorms

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Technology at work

An emergency manager in Silver Spring, Md., arrives at the scene of a derailed train that has spilled its toxic load and caught fire. He quickly takes out a handheld PC and begins inputting information about the accident: the location, the situation, what people in the nearby neighborhoods should do and what roads drivers should avoid.

He then taps the send button to transmit the information to the National Weather Service forecast office in Sterling, Va., where a computer system automatically authenticates the information and processes and formats it so it can be sent to a transmitter (in Baltimore, for example) and broadcast to the public over the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Weather Radio.

"The Weather Radio is such that we can specify that this is a civil emergency message for those particular segments of the locale," said Ken Putkovich, chief of NWS' dissemination systems branch. "It would be another tool that [emergency managers and first responders] could use for public safety."

The All Hazards Warning Network has not been developed — yet. But NOAA has requested $5.5 million in the fiscal 2004 budget to automate the response to emergencies so that emergency managers can easily send public safety information to NWS for almost immediate broadcast over the radio network. The money would fund the design and development of a sophisticated interface for the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System, which forecasters use to gather information that they prepare and disseminate to the public.

The NOAA Weather Radio, which can be bought in retail stores, is primarily used to warn the public about severe weather based on information from local forecast offices, but it can also broadcast information about terrorist attacks, chemical spills and other disasters. Currently, emergency managers and first responders must fax, e-mail or call in information for the broadcasts.

For the new system to work, however, other processes must be thought through. For example, an emergency manager on the scene of a disaster must have time to input all the data, but many states are shorthanded, said Bob Eastwood, communications manager for the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.

In addition, in states such as Nebraska, many areas lack the telecommunications support needed for the system to work. "We have cell phone service in most of the state," Eastwood said, but the ability to send text messages is limited. "I'm pro-technology, but some ideas are not practical, at least for our state."

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