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Keeping an ear on the weather

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[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Paul Toth and the Skywarn Group use ham radios and computers to keep tabs on threatening weather.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 5, 2000


Weather radios can keep you attuned to bad weather and even wake you up if an alert is issued by the National Weather Service while you sleep.

Everyone talks about the weather, but what the National Weather Service wants is more people listening . . . to the radio.

"We would like to see weather radios in every house," said Walt Zaleski, warning coordination meteorologist at the weather service station in Ruskin. "There's a high probability of Florida residents being impacted by severe weather in one shape or form. It's prudent to have something to warn of potential severe weather."

The mere idea of listening to hours and hours of forecasts and other weather data might be enough to send many people running for cover. But there's a new breed of weather radio. People can program the radios to hear only the information they want, and the radios can be on silent standby until activated by special broadcast signals. "It's like a smoke detector, always operating," Zaleski said.

The radios can act as an emergency alarm clock, waking someone if threatening weather approaches. If the power fails and commercial TV and radio are unavailable, the radios have battery backup. And in addition to choosing the types of warnings to hear -- such as tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, coastal flooding and high winds alerts -- users can program the radios to get information only for their home county.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's network of 500 stations broadcast 24 hours a day, covering about 90 percent of the U.S. population. NOAA wants to increase that to 98 percent. Still, a major hurdle remains: Only about 8-million weather radios have been sold.

So even if the NOAA Weather Radio signal is available, a lot of people aren't listening. That's an issue of particular concern in Florida as another hurricane season dawns. Last year, Harvey threatened the bay area before veering away. Georges brushed by in 1998.

"Too many people have become too complacent about the weather because we seemingly have missed all of this stuff," said Paul Toth, a member of the West Central Florida Skywarn Group. "They just don't take it quite as seriously as they should."

Toth and other members of Skywarn (www.qsl.net/wx4tbw), made up of ham radio operators that assist the weather service, consider every bit of information critical when severe weather threatens the area. They also know that every minute counts when it's time to warn the public.

Zaleski credits the group with providing information that led to more than half of the station's warnings being issued, and Toth says warning times from the Ruskin office have increased from about 5 minutes about five years ago to more than 12 minutes today.

Forecasters have a wide range of high-tech gadgets to watch the weather, including satellites, sophisticated radar and computer models. Skywarn provides extra eyes for the weather service. The group's live updates help forecasters match what they see electronically with what's happening on the ground. It gives better insight into what may occur as a storm progresses, as well as allowing better analysis once a storm has passed.

Toth, who once broadcast weather reports on radio and TV, says the West Central Florida group covers a 15-county area stretching from Lee County to the south to Levy County to the north and Polk and Highlands counties to the east.

"They have invested a lot of time in what to look for," including required training classes, said Toth, a systems analyst for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. "You just don't become a Skywarn spotter by someone waving a magic wand."

Toth endorses the weather service's push for more radios, particularly in Florida's unpredictable climate.

Zaleski says radios can start around $20 for basic models, but radios with special programming features cost as much as $80.

Several companies offer weather radios, including Radio Shack (www.radioshack.com), Oregon Scientific (www.oregonscientific.com) and Midland Consumer Radio (www.midlandradio.com). And Toth says consumers shouldn't be intimidated by the technology of more sophisticated models. "I think most people can program a weather radio without having a Ph.D.," Toth said.

Here are some of the features consumers should look for in a weather radio:

* Standby mode. The radio is silent until it receives a special signal broadcast by NOAA when a weather watch or warning is issued. In addition to the broadcast, the radio sounds an alert loud enough to wake someone from sleep. Some models also show a text message describing the type of weather alert. Users can choose to receive some or all of 54 types of alerts, including severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, coastal flooding and high winds.

* Location, location, location. Older weather radios receive information for wide areas, often far from where the listener lives or long after a storm has passed. Newer models can be set to receive alerts for a specific area, such as a listener's county. NOAA calls the technology Specific Area Messaging Encoding, or SAME. NOAA breaks down areas by codes, which the owner uses to program the radio. Information can be found at www.noaa.gov or by calling toll-free, (888) 697-7263.

Getting alerts for a limited area has its advantages (the radio isn't going off all night), Toth said, but it also means the listener isn't hearing about approaching storms in nearby counties.

* Frequencies. The radio should be able to receive all seven frequencies between 162.4 megahertz and 162.55 megahertz that NOAA broadcasts on nationwide. That way, Zaleski says, the radio can still be used if people move to another state.

* Battery backup. This keeps the radio working, even when power is lost.

Weather alerts one day may move beyond radio, to cell phones, pagers, even to digital TVs. Whatever the technology, weather experts say, it's important for people to listen.

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