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Government plans to provide hazard warning radios to every public school

Monday, September 25, 2006

WASHINGTON -- When the squeal from an automated warning radio brought news a severe storm was approaching, school principal William Tomic acted quickly. He alerted teachers to bring children indoors and to a secure interior hallway for shelter.

Minutes later, 70 mph winds ripped the roof off the kindergarten wing of the Charles F. Johnson Elementary School in Endicott, N.Y. No one was hurt, thanks to the warning and the timely response to it.

"It really did work very well, we were so pleased with it," Tomic said in a telephone interview. "The parents were as well."

Many were concerned when they arrived to find the roof lying on the side of the building. But their children were safe and had not even seen the damage occur, Tomic said.

Hoping for more such success stories, the government planned to announce on Monday that it will supply hazard warning radios to all 97,000 public schools in the United States.

The National Weather Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, operates more than 950 short-range radio stations. It has encouraged schools, business and homeowners to buy warning radios that are activated with a broadcast signal that automatically turns a radio on and announces a potential hazard.

The Homeland Security Department now has decided to provide $5 million to make sure these radios are in every public school, NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher said.

Originally conceived as a means to deliver weather warnings, the system now covers all hazards -- for example, terrorism, abducted children and derailed trains carrying toxic materials.

Of course, it takes more than just having the warning radio. School authorities have to know what to do when an alarm sounds.

Tomic said his school has two weather drills a year. Each classroom has a kit that the teachers bring along to the shelter area to keep the children occupied with games, stories, songs and other activities.

In Fairfax County, Va., three tornado and severe weather drills are held annually, said Fred Ellis, the director of safety and security for public schools.

"Certainly we've had our share of severe weather," Ellis said, noting the radios have been in county schools for several years.

Typically they are in the school office where there is always someone to monitor them. "They make quite a racket," Ellis said, and it is useful for administrators to keep track of what is happening outside their buildings.

"We're not immune from severe weather and we take that very seriously," Ellis said.

In announcing the plan to distribute the radios, NOAA pointed out that more than 10,000 major thunderstorms, 2,500 floods and 1,000 tornadoes hit the U. S. annually, and that hurricanes threaten the Gulf and East coasts.

Lautenbacher said weather experts from local Weather Service offices will be available to assist school officials in determining how best to use the radios.

The radios operate 24-hours-a-day, receiving forecasts and warnings from the Weather Service's 123 forecast offices as well as other information.

Six states -- Washington, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Florida and Mississippi -- already mandate use of the radios in schools. NOAA said those schools will also be included in the new program to make sure they have the most recent models. Also included will be tribal schools and public schools in U.S. territories.

Typically the radios are smaller than a clock radio, have a battery backup in case of power loss and are sold at electronic and other stores for $20 to $80. Most can be programmed to respond only to warnings for a specific area -- a county or city, for example.

Lautenbacher said the distribution is expected to begin in October and should take a few months.

He said the NOAA radio system covers about 97 percent of the country with the few gaps in some sparsely populated mountain areas.

On the Net:

NOAA Weather Radio: http://www.weather.gov/nwr

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