When a swarm of tornadoes struck central Florida Feb. 22, the large number of fatalities was attributed in part to the lateness of the hour - several twisters touched down around midnight, long after people had switched off the radio or TV and gone to bed.
At least one resident was not caught off guard, however. According to Dennis Decher, a warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service (NWS) forecast office in Melbourne, Fla., a Winter Garden resident was awakened by a tone from a special weather radio he kept in his mobile home. It was a tornado warning. He got up, drove to a friend's house a short distance away, and later returned to find his mobile home destroyed. "Apparently, the radio saved his life," Mr. Decher says.
The radio was triggered by signals from the local NWS forecast office sent out over special radio transmitters. Known as NOAA Weather Radio, Top 40 it isn't. But the 24-hour a day service remains the best and fastest way for the public to get advance notice of severe weather, emergency planners say. And when severe weather doesn't threaten, it's like having the Weather Channel in your pocket.
"It's our preferred approach" for getting severe weather information, says Rita Hoffman, assistant director for training and public education with the Johnson County, Kan., Emergency Management Office. "Not every commercial radio station disseminates weather information the same way. Besides, other media take their cues from the National Weather Service." Using a weather radio means getting the information the moment it's issued.
The service began 30 years ago as an experimental way to keep pilots up to date on local weather conditions, according to Larry Krudwig, manager of field systems for the NWS Central Region Headquarters in Kansas City. But it didn't take off until the NWS began aiming the service toward marine interests. "More people had boats than planes," Mr. Krudwig says. Once people got used to the service on board their boats, they began to find uses for weather radio on land as well. Now, with 450 transmitters nationwide, the service has the potential to reach as much as 75 percent of the US population. And more transmitters are being added.
The receivers have come a long way as well. From shirt-pocket models to table-top radios, the units range in price from just over $20 to $100. The higher-end models include features that let a user filter out warnings for all but the user's county. These units also display the type of watch or warning, and continue to do so until the warning period expires.
Nor are civil-emergency planners alone in seeing the potential the radio-alert system has for reducing risks from severe weather. Arkwright Mutual Insurance Co., based in Waltham, Mass., spent $1.2 million last year on weather-alert radios, installing them in at least 10,000 policyholders' buildings as part of the company's risk mitigation program. Last month, Florida installed 3,000 NOAA Weather Radios in public schools around the state.
"We've invested huge amounts of resources to detect and warn of severe weather," Krudwig says. With the weather-radio alert system, "there's no reason for headlines claiming that a storm struck without warning."