Vice President Gore's 1994 Initiative To Make Weather Radios as "Common as Smoke Detectors"

On March 31, 1994, Former Vice President Al Gore surveyed the devastation from violent storms and tornadoes in Cherokee County, Alabama, and announced a new initiative to "provide access to warnings of potential disasters—early warnings—for everyone, everywhere in the Nation." His goal was to make the inexpensive NOAA Weather Radios as "common as smoke detectors."

Vice President Gore established a task force to promote and establish public/ private partnerships with corporations, associations, and local governments to fund enough new NOAA Weather Radio transmission stations to cover 95 percent of the population. The task force is composed of experts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

USDA's Rural Electrification Agency (now Rural Utilities Service) asked its clients to find free space on existing radio towers at rural electric and telephone cooperative sites. The Service also asked clients to promote the purchase and donation of transmitters by cooperatives.

The growth in the NOAA Weather Radio network has been funded largely through the efforts of par tnerships and cooperation with other Federal, State and local government agencies. Since 1994, more than 100 new stations have been added to the network using a variety of local, state, and Federal monies and through public/private partnerships with corporations, electric cooperatives, and community groups.

Boat with keep in the air at dock. See caption.The results have been encouraging, but expansion has been slow.

Storm surge damage, Hurricane Hugo, Roosevelt Roads Naval Base, Puerto Rico, 1989.
Photo courtesy of Don Wernly.

NPR's Involvement

In 1998, Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR) selected the National Weather Service as a high-impact agency—one of 32 agencies whose leaders were committed to making small but significant, concrete measurable goals that could be achieved over 3 years. NPR works with these agencies to help them transform themselves, to focus on customers and on getting results that matter to Americans.

To help save lives by providing quicker warnings of rapidly approaching violent weather, NPR brought together representatives from more than a dozen federal agencies, including:

Former Vice President Al Gore Representatives from these agencies formed a multi-agency working group with the intent to save lives; the group is working to do this by finding combined solutions to give people better, faster, and more effective hazard warnings.

The working group found that NOAA Weather Radio forms the backbone of an all-hazard system. But to reach the goal of providing coverage to 95 percent of the U.S. population, additional transmitters and receivers are needed.

Vice President Al Gore

The National Weather Service, working together with the other agencies, has identified the key locations for new transmitters to extend coverage. These locations are primarily in rural areas. USDA has identified a number of RUS electric and telecommunications borrowers who have existing towers that may be suitable for installing transmitters. The U.S. General Service Administration is working to get receivers in locations where Federal employees work. The interagency group is working to leverage existing funds to provide additional transmitters and will save lives by assuring that people are given more adequate warnings of violent weather.

The technological explosion of the past 10 years is fostering new and innovative ways to bring warning messages to the public. To reach as many people as possible, we will need to use all means available to provide a better, faster, cheaper, and more effective all-hazard warning system for the future.

Existing and future partnerships between government agencies and public and private groups will assure that weather, hazard, and emergency warnings are provided through the many forms of communication available to consumers as the nation's information systems continue to develop and expand.

Technology for the Future

Tomorrow's all-hazard warning system will be "smart."

Your television set, your pager, or your receivers will tell you exactly how far away a hazard is and how soon a disaster will strike. Not only will you get warnings that are quicker and more accurate, but you'll know about more disasters.

Some systems will turn themselves on to warn you. And, to be certain you have it, you'll probably receive the message from several different places. You might get a self-activated warning from your cell phone, your TV, your car radio, or even from a "call warning" call on your regular telephone. You'll know about hazards whether you are home, in your office, in your car, at school, in a hospital, at a shopping mall, or even in your place of worship. If you are hearing impaired, a vibrator could go off under your pillow when you're asleep.

It will be up to you, the individual user, to choose what information you want (tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, flash floods, high winds, chemical spills, or radiation hazards), whether you want to be awakened in the middle of the night, and other details. You might even be able to put in a profile so you'll know about tornadoes where your grandmother lives.

The information will come in a very small stream of digital bits of information—hundreds of bits on a very small official and secure bandwidth. It will be available on a variety of receivers—radios, televisions, telephones, and pagers. Many of the receivers will be equipped to turn on when they get the signal, sound a warning tone, set the volume, and give the message. Mobile receivers will know where they are and sound alarms for events only in that area.

The kinds and amount of information that will be available tomorrow are limited only by our own imaginations. It will include space weather, forest fires, hurricanes, chemical spills, terrorist incidents, Year 2000 problems, civil unrest, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, volcanic eruptions, or even major traffic accidents.

One of the first and most important initiatives of the Clinton-Gore Administration was a commitment to build an advanced National Information Infrastructure—the "information superhighway." More than a single technology, the information superhighway includes many communications networks, computers, data bases, and consumer electronics, all of which have the potential to change how people live, work, and interact.

A number of promising examples of technological advances made possible by the information superhighway already hold promise for the future—and new advances are being made almost on a daily basis. As people become more "weather aware," they will want and need more hazard warnings.

Young woman with glasses using Internet.The Internet—We're already using the Internet to talk to each other and share information on virtually any subject. Over 100 million people worldwide have access to the web -up from 40 million at the end of 1996 and only a handful 5 years ago. Internet traffic doubles every 100 days, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Access to the Internet is so vital to students and the public that both President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore are committed to getting every school, library, and hospital connected to the Internet.

The Internet makes information about weather emergencies and other hazards widely available instantly. Many websites already provide weather and hazard information. For example, earthquake information is now posted within 10 seconds of the event to help guide response and recovery. Weather and flood warnings are available at the National Weather Service website. Most local television stations and national television networks have websites with local and national weather conditions and radar maps from the National Weather Service. The U.S. Geological Survey provides real-time water, land, and stream flood data over the Internet for more than 4,000 locations along the nation's major rivers.

Categories of Tornado Intensity

The size of a tornado does not indicate its intensity. Tornadoes are ranked according to their damage, according to the Fujita Scale, which is very subjective:

F0: Gale tornado. Winds of 40-72 mph; some damage to chimneys; breaks branches off trees; sign board damaged.

F1: Moderate tornado. Winds 73-112 mph; moving autos are pushed off the roads; attached garages may be destroyed; mobile homes pushed off foundations or overturned; surface of roofs peeled off.

F2: Significant tornado. Winds 113-157 mph; considerable damage; roofs torn off frame homes; mobile homes demolished; boxcars pushed over; large trees snapped or uprooted; light objects become airborn missiles.

F3: Severe tornado. Winds 158-206 mph; roofs and some walls torn off well built homes; trains overturned; most trees in forests uprooted.

F4: Devastating tornado. Winds 207-260 mph; well-built homes leveled; buildings with weak foundations blown off some distance; cars thrown through the air.

F5: Incredible tornado. Winds of 261-318 mph; strong frame homes lifted off foundations and carried considerable distances; car-sized items be-come missiles and fly through the air in excess of 100 meters; bark stripped from trees.

F6: Inconceivable tornado. Winds of 319-379; very unlikely. The small area of damage produced would probably not be recognizable from the wreckage produced by F4 and F5 winds.

Car totally wrecked by storm. During an emergency, there often isn't enough time to look for information on the Internet. Because most people still connect via phone lines, the Internet is subject to the same interruptions as the telephone system, especially after a disaster strikes. At least one Internet provider has begun providing emergency warnings to its customers. Some-thing as simple as an e-mail directed to a specific address—possibly a classroom or a government building—could give enough warning to save lives. For example, television station WJLA (Channel 7) in Washington, D.C., has begun offering an e-mail service that sends subscribers information about upcoming news stories and severe weather and school closings.

Storm damage.

The Internet and other advanced technologies will become even more important over time. Because we are living through a "digital revolution," the lines between communications technologies are beginning to blur. Digital television may become very similar to your computer, and it may soon be possible to program your television set to receive warnings or to get warnings on your computer screen.

Five Categories of Hurricanes

Hurricanes are ranked 1 to 5, according to the Saffir-Simpson scale of strength:

Category 1: Hurricane has central barometric pressure of 28.94 inches or more and winds of 74 to 95 mph. It is accompanied by a 4- to 5-foot storm surge and causes minimal damage.

Category 2: Pressure 28.50 to 28.93 inches, winds from 96 to 110 mph; storm surge 6 to 8 feet, damage moderate.

Category 3: Pressure 27.91 to 28.49 inches, winds from 111 to 130 mph, storm surge nine to 12 feet, damage extensive.

Category 4: Pressure 27.17 to 27.90 inches, winds from 131 to 155 mph, storm surge 13 to 18 feet, damage extreme. Hurricanes Andrew, Hugo, Hazel, and Floyd were Category 4 storms.

Category 5: Pressure less than 27.17 inches, winds greater than 155 mph, storm surge higher than 18 feet, damage catastrophic. Hurricanes Mitch, Gilbert, and Camille are examples of Category 5 storms.

Emergency Managers Weather Information Network—The Emergency Managers Weather Information Network (EMWIN) is a system that transmits live weather information to computers across the U.S. and over most of the Pacific Ocean. The National Weather Service gathers live weather and emergency information from sources across the globe and the EMWIN system broadcasts that data via satellite, radio, and the Internet. Computers can use the satellite downlink to access a stream of real-time weather information from NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites, GOES-8 and GOES-10.

Emergency management groups and municipal agencies retrieve the EMWIN data from satellite and retransmit it through local radio frequencies. Anyone within a 40 to 50 mile range of the transmission signal can access that data on their computer screen. Agencies can tailor the information to fit their specific area. In some small island countries, it is the most reliable way to get forecasts and warnings.

You can access EMWIN information on the Internet Weather Information Network. Choices include enhanced graphics, including radar and satellite images, plain text, and alarms. You can configure your computer to trigger alarms for specific hazards. Some alarm features are: automatic activation of lights, sirens, printers, pagers, or e-mail. The alarm feature makes the system ideal for people on the go, people who are disabled, people in emergency management operation centers, or anyone else who needs timely information about weather and emergency situations. The popularity of this website is growing—it averages more than 40 million hits each month, and, during major weather events, can field more than 2 million a day.

Pagers—Modern pagers can be used to transmit limited warning information. Paging systems cover 80 to 85 percent of the country. They are largely land-based and use their own tower sites or the subcarrier signals of broad-cast stations. The sites are usually linked by satellite. FCC field tests of new alerting technologies in 1993 demonstrated that paging systems can inter-face with NOAA Weather Radio and EAS to give timely warning messages on pagers. Paging system participation in EAS and in the retransmission of NOAA Weather Radio warning messages is voluntary.

An example of what today's paging systems can do without any new technology can be seen in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where there are often severe weather conditions. The Tulsa area Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) teamed up with AT&T Wireless Services, Inc., to create a service that warns pager customers of tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, flood warnings, or problems with hazardous substances. Covering only Tulsa County, the service is modeled on the paging system that local police use to immediately alert the news media. Each warning has a different code: 912 means a tornado; 913 a severe thunderstorm; 914 a flood; and 915 a hazardous materials incident.

TEMA hopes this service can be made available through other pager ser-vices in Tulsa. Although this is not a high-tech solution, and it doesn't pro-vide detailed information, it shows what can be done to reach more people.

In the future, more sophisticated systems using pagers will send out warnings more efficiently to larger audiences. At least one company has worked with a major communications equipment manufacturer to send messages to residents on their pagers or cell phones.

Cell (Wireless) Phones—Wireless, or cell, telephone systems also cover 80 to 85 percent of the country, with over 63 million cell phones in operation in the United States. Most communities have two cellular phone providers. Low-orbital-satellite communications systems will also provide portable phone service to many places in the future. Personal Communication Ser-vice (PCS) coverage is increasing rapidly across the country. Some techno-logical barriers preclude cellular telephone systems from interfacing with EAS and NOAA Weather Radio to provide their users with timely warning messages. Cellular telephone participation in EAS and in the retransmission of NOAA Weather Radio warning messages is voluntary.

Cell communications equipment typically has a range of 10 miles for analog signals and 3 miles for digital ones. The technology exists to broadcast to cellular phones within a cell so that, for example, you could track a tornado through a region, alerting only those within specific cells.

In some areas of the country, it is possible to get weather information through a "short messaging" service that already broadcasts other information, such as news headlines or stock quotes. The information is displayed on the phone's handset. Currently, however, the information is not targeted to a specific geographic area.

The wireless industry is developing technical standards that may be avail-able soon to deliver emergency messages to cellular and personal communications services phones within the range of one tower. This would be "short messaging" technology directed to a specific targeted area. However, this technology may require customers to purchase new handsets.

Multiple lightning strikes in night sky.Call Warning—At least two companies—Telcordia Technologies of Red Bank, N.J., and SCC Communications of Boulder, Colorado—have developed and tested a technology to use telephones to identify and warn people within minutes of an impending emergency. SCC's system makes up to 2,000 telephone calls per minute to designated areas. In 1998, SCC con-ducted a trial in conjunction with U S West, the City and County of Boulder, and the University of Colorado as part of the area's annual flood preparedness exercise. Designed to try calls three times if the line is busy or there is no answer, the system attempted to deliver a 40- second voice message to 863 numbers, mostly university residents. The first round of calls delivered all or part of the message to almost 80 percent of the numbers within 12 minutes.

A system like this has the potential to complement warnings delivered in other ways. It may not be feasible for all situations. Even 12 minutes may not be adequate warning for some emergencies. And while this system may give advance warning, phone lines may become congested or inoperable after a major weather event, requiring customers to turn to NOAA Weather Radio or other disaster information sources.

Tomorrow's TV—While today's television sets provide emergency alerts through the EAS, tomorrow's digital TVs, which will soon be available to consumers, will do even more. Broadcasters will probably continue to serve the public's interests as they have always done, with weather coverage and alerts including special bulletins and a stream of text warnings crawling along the top or bottom of the screen.

The new digital televisions will give broadcasters more ways to deliver information. In many ways, High Definition TV (HDTV) will be like a computer, receiving and processing a great deal of information in digital form. Weather and other hazard information would be a relatively small part. Warn-ings can also come from the TV receiver itself. Manufacturers could build a sophisticated technology to provide a visual or audio alert, a warning light or chime, or to turn the set on and adjust the volume.

Norman Ornstein, co-chair of the Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters, said recently that the amount of the radio spectrum needed for this purpose would be "the equivalent of a human hair across a superhighway." This advisory committee's report recommends that broad-casters work with appropriate emergency communications specialists and manufacturers to determine the most effective way to transmit disaster warning information.

On the Road—The transportation system of the future will undoubtedly use much of the communications technology already being designed today. Some automobiles already have "on board" computer mapping systems to direct you to your destination. Future guidance systems that use the Global Positioning System (GPS) could also contain a hazard warning system. The Department of Transportation includes systems like this in its Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) programs. In addition to information on the Internet, telephone and cell phones, many cities and states already provide "real time" information to people who are traveling by using the Radio Broadcast Data System (RBDS) and programmable message signs on the roadways.

Hurricane. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

The ITS program also supports developing a new standard so that you can get travel and weather information on specially equipped car radios. FEMA and NWS are looking at systems to let broadcasters use a part of an FM radio channel—the FM subcarrier—to broadcast severe weather warnings to homes and vehicles. FM stations throughout the country could carr y weather warnings continuously without interrupting their regular programming. Phoenix, Seattle, and San Antonio already have pilot systems in place.

Digital codes can turn on receivers, set the volume, stop a tape cassette or compact disc, and issue a warning. Radio Data System (RDS) is transmitted by most FM stations in Western Europe, and car radios with RDS functions are available from 50 different European manufacturers. In the United States, a slightly modified RDS called RBDS (Radio Broadcast Data System) can interrupt programming only for those listeners with the appropriate receiver. General Motors began offering RBDS receivers in 1998 in some of its Cadillacs.

After the blizzard, motorists return to dig out cars.On the Water—There are almost 70 million recreational boaters in the United States, and numerous commercial marine-based crews. At any time, a substantial portion of these mariners are using our nation's waterways. The United States Coast Guard, in close cooperation with NOAA's National Weather Service, not only re-broadcasts weather forecasts daily using its maritime VHF-FM National Distress System, but also actively re-broadcasts severe weather warnings as they happen, using the same system. These forecasts and warnings are an integral part of the Maritime Safety Information System and the marine community relies on this Coast Guard service. Nearly all marine radios can receive NOAA Weather Radio. More sophisticated receivers scan for alerts and then switch to an alarm mode when they receive one.

Cars stranded after a Colorado snowstorm. 
Photo courtesy of
Jim Wiesmueller.

Disability Issues—Once a receiver gets an emergency warning, it can turn on alarms, lights, vibrators, and other devices to alert people with special needs. The possibilities are limited only by our imagination and our ability to build commercially viable equipment.

In Joliet, Illinois, hearing-impaired residents can now get warnings about thunderstorms and other weather dangers through an emergency pager program. The city provides free pagers to those who submit medical proof of hearing loss, such as doctor's notes. Vibrating pagers transmit warnings and a code indicates the type of weather emergency in effect. Joliet previously warned hearing-impaired residents through friends, relatives or radio.

Local chapters of Americans With Disabilities can provide additional information.

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