- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2002

The nation's emergency managers the specialists who direct efforts to cope with catastrophes say the country lacks an efficient warning system, and they intend to create one that quickly alerts those in harm's way but doesn't needlessly alarm others.

They envision adding to palm pilots, cell phones and other built-in consumer electronics devices that perpetually monitor a warning network and automatically broadcast a bulletin when needed.

"If, for instance, a tornado warning is appropriate to the owner of a radio, it will automatically turn on and transmit the alert. The warning message will give specific information so the person can avoid trouble," said Peter Ward, spokesman for Partnership for Public Warning.

Currently, emergency alerts are broadcast over AMS radio and television, which cover very large geographic areas and are only useful to those "listening to radio or television at the time," said Mr. Ward.

Formed last month, the partnership is made up of 120 federal, state and local emergency managers and interested industry representatives such as cell-phone makers and federal agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the Federal Communication Commission. The McLean-based group has received "a strong endorsement" from the White House, Mr. Ward said.

Inexpensive technology exists for incorporating automatic warning devices in television sets, palm pilots, pagers, regular telephones, cell phones, computers and other consumer products, said Mr. Ward, a former U.S. Geological Survey official and chairman of a White House group studying natural disaster information systems

What's more, he says, there are entrepreneurs eager to back what they foresee will be a lucrative market for the gadgets.

"What's missing are national standards and agreement on formats for collecting and relaying the alerts," Mr. Ward says. Without standards and government involvement, business people have been reluctant to fund warning system ventures, he said.

Few who have studied the issue deny a state-of-the-art emergency alert system is needed. And in fact the need is easy to illustrate:

•In Xenia, Ohio, on April 3, 1974, 30 persons died when a tornado swirled into town. National Weather Service meteorologists had clear radar indications that the tornado would hit, but they had no way to warn the community in time.

•In Richmond, Calif., on March 25, 1999, 600 people were injured when a fire at the Chevron Refinery caused the release of noxious fumes. Telephone warnings failed to alert people in the area who were most at risk, and warning sirens didn't sound until 14 minutes after the gas discharge.

•In Oregon, on Sept. 25, 1999, 6 died and 20 were injured when 42 cars collided on a stretch of Interstate Highway 84. The cars crashed because of swirling dust during a windstorm. State police were unable to warn highway users heading into the windy area.

A new nationwide system would help prevent such death and destruction, says Mr. Ward. He said the group's mission is especially clear since the September 11 attacks.

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