19 June 2011

National Weather Service Public Safety Problems

The National Weather Service office in St. Louis issues weather alerts frequently during the spring storm season. This weekend there have been tornado warnings, severe thunderstorm warnings, flash flood warnings, and other warnings along with a host of watches within the area served by the St. Louis office (lsx) of the local NOAA office. But one thing has been a great safety concern to those who rely upon one of the St. Louis (lsx) office' chief tools for distributing the information to the public at large - and that is KDO-89 Radio the NOAA weather station that broadcasts from a tower in Shrewsbury on 162.550 megahertz.

During the last two mornings --- during times when tornado warnings and severe thunderstorm warnings were being issued in the heart of the metropolitan St. Louis area --- KDO-89 was silent. Off the air without any broadcasts of the information. NOAA weather radio units rely upon the trigger from that station but could NOT receive that trigger without the radio station broadcasting.

As I write this story, KDO-89 has been off the air for more than 13 hours on a Sunday. A reminder that May 22, 2011 was a Sunday that the residents of Joplin will never forget.

The problem of KDO-89 being off-air and silent impacts, perhaps, upward of one millions persons living in the metropolitan area because it is the main alert "trigger" to the home-unit NOAA weather radios. The NOAA weather radios are easily bought and operated with battery power or electric power with battery backup and are designed to allow the user to connect with the NOAA alerts on several frequencies. But in St. Louis, KDO-89 has been the main signal for more than 40 years. When people purchase their NOAA weather radios in St. Louis and vicinity, most people use an automatic setting which will default to 162.550 megahertz (mHz) because it is the strongest signal in the area. Without KDO-89 on the air during the weather warnings, most people will not receive those alerts.

The subject of some strong talk in Alton and Godfrey lately, some communities do not have tornado sirens in the same manner as St. Louis County and St. Louis City and many of the communities in St. Charles County. It is those areas not served with tornado sirens that could be the most at risk if KDO-89 is not broadcasting the warnings because it is off the air.

On Saturday morning when KDO-89 was not on the air --- thus unable to trigger NOAA weather radios --- tornado warnings were sent out at 5:30 am but residents in Alton and Godfrey knew nothing about those warnings unless they were already awake or received the warnings via email or special alerts to their phones. There is no easy fix for people who rely upon the weather radios and their ability to awaken them --- literally --- to the possibility of a tornado.

Fortunately for the residents of the metropolitan area there were NO tornadoes on the ground this weekend in St. Louis and vicinity. This has not been the case for much of the year with at least three tornadoes that touched down inside the "270/255 loop" since last December.

The question remains to be seen how problematic the National Weather Service' main radio station transmission will be during the next few days and months. But one thing that seems to be for certain --- if there are no tornado sirens in some of these communities and KDO-89 is not broadcasting, there is a great potential for disaster if a tornado rips through the unwarned communities in metropolitan St. Louis.


The National Weather Service says the problems the past two days have been because of service failures on the part of AT&T. Each time they were contacted to inquire about KDO-89 being off the air, the National Weather Service website webmaster replied saying they were hoping to have the station transmission problem rectified as soon as possible. More than 13 hours after the National Weather Service St. Louis NOAA radio station went off the air --- it remains silent.

The question remains --- with service being out for such long periods of time --- who would be held responsible if a sudden storm were to hit the area and the lack of NOAA weather radio warnings due to the inoperable state of KDO-89 resulted in even one death?

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