Meteorologists pushing radios that warn of weather, terrorism

Wednesday, March 26th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The wail of weather radios blaring in the night has alerted sleeping people for years about twisters tearing through their town.

Meteorologists say that's a good enough reason to buy one of the $25 to $150 radios. But here's another reason that might matter to those who don't even live in tornado alley: it will broadcast warnings during a terrorist attack.

``They should be as common as smoke detectors,'' said Rick Smith, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Norman. ``We would love to see everybody, every home, every business with one.''

But studies in recent years show only about 5 percent of people own a weather radio, he said.

If there is a biological attack, a terrorist threat or a hazardous spill, law enforcement officers can contact the National Weather Service. Meteorologists there can sound a warning on weather radio frequencies within seconds, Smith said.

In Texas and Louisiana last month, meteorologists used weather radios to warn residents not to touch pieces of the space shuttle Columbia that fell from the sky.

The radios also can broadcast alerts for train derailments, nuclear releases and Amber Alerts _ released when a child is kidnapped.

``It's extremely important to have one in these unpredictable times,'' said Wanda Reardon, whose Angier, N.C., company sells the radios via the Internet for $79.95 apiece. ``Emergency officials all across the country are recommending that people have them in their homes.''

North Carolina recently bought 14,000 radios, one for every school. Maryland and Texas also made big purchases from Reardon's company in the last year, planning to put the radios in schools and government buildings, she said.

The radios are programmed before shipping to pick up warnings in the customer's area. Electronics stores that sell the radios also can program them.

Today's weather radios are much more advanced. Some people stuck their old-model radios in the garage years ago because they were annoying, squealing with every severe thunderstorm or flash-flood warning in a 40-mile radius.

``They didn't want to be waking up in the middle of the night for a storm that far away,'' Smith said.

These days, the radios can be set to pick up only the worst dangers, such as a tornado warning in that county. There are even models designed for the deaf, including one that comes with a pillow vibrator and a strobe light.

Reardon started her radio business after leaving a state research job, which included work in disaster areas. She once interviewed people after a tornado ripped through, killing several.

``If the people had had a radio they could have had prior warning and that could have saved some lives,'' she said. ``That just touched me.''