- The Washington Times - Monday, July 22, 2002

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.
On April 28, WTOP did not receive the signal that carried the digital burst. An internal National Weather Service investigation revealed the signal became distorted because the volume was too high, essentially rendering it useless. The distortion likely occurred because the telephone line that carried the signal automatically raised the volume, Ms. Watson said.
Because of the failure, WTOP was unable to activate the Emergency Alert System.
"We are the top of the food chain, but we weren't able to pass the warning along to the other stations because we never got it," said Jim Farley, WTOP's vice president of news and programming.
The station had not experienced the problem before. The system worked well when a tornado struck College Park in September, a WTOP staffer said.
One television station, WB affiliate WBDC-TV (Channel 50), is tied into the same system the radio stations use because it does not have its own news department.
The National Weather Service will need a new transmitter to ensure the volume of its digital burst signal does not become distorted again.
A new transmitter would cost between $50,000 and $60,000, but the service has not determined when it will buy the equipment and install it, Ms. Watson said.
The weather service is upgrading its transmitters across the nation through a five-year plan. The Manassas transmitter is considered a high priority, she said.
WTOP has changed its policy on passing along weather warnings to other stations. It no longer will wait to receive the burst from the National Weather Service, Mr. Farley said.
"From now on, we'll trigger the alarm ourselves," he said, based on information the station receives from the Associated Press and other sources.
One local broadcast executive, who asked to not be named, said WTOP should not necessarily have that power.
"I have total confidence in the Emergency Alert System, but since September 11 there are a lot of questions as to who should activate it and what it should be used for," the executive said.
The weather service tests its system every Wednesday and has experienced no problems, Ms. Watson said. "But this is certainly a problem we want to correct. If you don't correct something like this, there is a greater chance the system could fail again," she said.
The La Plata tornado killed three persons. Nina W. Voel, public information officer for the Charles County government, said she was unaware of any complaints from tornado victims that they did not hear warnings on the radio.
"A lot of people said they were caught off guard, but they weren't necessarily complaining about the radio coverage," she said.

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