Disaster warning systems improve

BY STEVE GUST | CARLSBAD, CALIF. | February 28, 2000


The 21st century should see even more advances in warning systems for disasters -- but will there ever be a way to get the word out to everyone, with equity, in time?

High-tech warning plans are evolving. Perhaps one of the more ambitious comes from John Flanagan. He's the founder of the Disaster Warning Network of Carlsbad, Calif. and has a simple objective: "I want to save lives and property when disasters occur," Flanagan said.

Flanagan said government estimates of disasters in the United States total $50 billion annually and worldwide it's $400 billion.

He sees a world linked by high-tech sensors, centrally linked, that warn through cell phones, pagers, televisions, radios, computers,

fire/smoke alarms, and what Flanagan describes as "any other type of common communication device."

His system, if ever implemented, would immediately control gas, fuel, and other utilities to prevent fires or explosions.

"The Disaster Warning Network will be a global business and will seek to mitigate the effects of disasters on all people everywhere,"

Flanagan said.

The lack of warning system had tragic consequences this month when a series of tornadoes raked Camilla, GA, killing 19. In contrast, when

a tornado hit Owensboro, KY in last month, destroying 400 homes, a newly-installed warning system was instrumental in a zero death toll.

While Flanagan envisions the future, some are making more fine-focused present-day advances.

Oregon is the current testing ground for two new early warning systems.

One is in Portland and the other is being tested in Lane County. Also called "911 in reverse," authorities alert residents with pre-taped

telephone calls, usually about 1,000 a minute.

Last fall, Lane County tested its notification warnings with 5,000 telephone calls simulating a possible flood.

The system, by U S WEST is called the Community Emergency Notification System (CENS). Julia Winge, product manager, said the system took three years to develop. Lane County is its first customer, although Loveland, Colo. has since signed on for the program.

"Interest has been very high," Winge said.

Residents who don't speak English will be able to understand warnings because "messages delivered are created by the customer," Winge said. "They can leave them in any language or combination of languages they want."

Another warning plan involves National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Weather radios, said District 10 Federal Emergency

Management Agency public affairs officer Mike Howard. The radios contain digital technology that allows them to activate when weather

watch and warning information is broadcast for specific areas.

The radios, which can wake people when a storm approaches, usually cost $80 - a price that some response groups say may keep many from having the system.

"The local municipalities are probably more equipped to know how to deal with those situations," Howard said. "They know the demographics and who is at risk."

Some in the church community are advocating for better warning systems for the homeless and for those not familiar with English. "It

seems in most areas there are two to three radio/TV programs that non-English speaking people listen to and public service announcements

could be there," said Joanne Hale, a Church World Service (CWS) disaster resource facilitator (DRF) based in Grand Island, NY.

Hale added that church volunteers could be activated to reach the most affected.

It's also a challenge for Peter J. Van Hook, another CWS DRF. It's even a more daunting task for him because of mountains in Utah region

where he's based.

"Many parts of the inter-mountain west only receive only satellite or cable signals," he said.

In Utah, and the west, sudden disasters -- earthquakes, flash foods, wildfires -- are common. There is also a significant Spanish-speaking

population. "I would get in touch with the Spanish language media outlets and start building relationships and networks," Van Hook said.

He advocates for contact with shelters and mission programs for the homeless. "Other than that, law enforcement vehicles broadcasting on

their loudspeakers might be worth a try," he said.

It will be a problem many will continue to tackle in years to come. Those with foresight, like Flanagan, know what's at stake. "Almost every person and every public place on the planet faces some risk from natural disasters such as tornadoes, earthquakes, lightning storms, floods, or tsunamis," Flanagan said. "Everyone will benefit from effective early warnings for disasters."


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