Oklahoma weather warning system going national

Thursday, December 13th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A communication system that alerts Oklahomans to twisters, fires and chemical spills is gaining national attention.

The weather warning system, called OK-FIRST, already is used in Kansas, Arkansas and Texas. Officials in Florida and New York have asked about the program, its founders said.

The program's creators received a $100,000 national award Thursday that will be used to promote the system around the country.

The Oklahoma Climatological Survey at the University of Oklahoma in Norman developed OK-FIRST four years ago.

OK-FIRST is a network of computers _ in fire stations, police departments and emergency management agencies _ linked to a central computer that emits weather and emergency information. Data within the system includes radar imagery, wind speeds, temperatures, fire danger outlooks and forecasts.

``It's the best weather tool yet that's been devised for rural areas,'' said Ben Springfield, Lincoln County's emergency management director.

Springfield used the system May 3, 1999, when a series of tornadoes tore threw the state and killed 44 people. He believes the system spared the town of Stroud from massive casualties.

OK-FIRST founders were in Washington on Thursday as one of five groups to win the 2001 Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

``Severe weather accounts for hundreds of deaths in the U.S. every year,'' said Gail Christopher, executive director of the Institute for Government Innovation. ``But thanks to OK-FIRST's innovative approach, Oklahoma stands as a symbol of preparedness.''

The award was established through an endowment from the Ford Foundation. It is given for excellence and creativity in the public sector.

Winners are supposed to use the $100,000 prize to replicate their prototypes.

OK-FIRST began in 1996 with a $550,000 federal grant that allowed the climatological survey to create software and links to National Weather Service data. It also funded training and computers for the system's first 22 users, who went online in June 1997.

The program is used in about 150 locations in 73 counties, and soon will be available in all 77 Oklahoma counties, said Kevin Kloesel, outreach director for the climatological survey.

Kloesel said OK-FIRST could have helped rescuers who suffered from hypothermia at the site of the World Trade Center attack. With the system, workers would have known about weather conditions at the site before they arrived, he said.

In Oklahoma, the system was used by authorities watching a major wildfire and to alert the public to a hazardous materials incident at the Conoco refinery in Ponca City.

Officials also have used OK-FIRST to protect crowds during outdoor events and to schedule paving and painting projects.