Tornadoes and other severe weather emergencies are a fact of life in the Great Plains state of South Dakota, and there's a system in place to alert residents of the danger - the radio network of the National Weather Service. Now, state officials say they can use the network to warn the public of possible terrorist attacks.
Weather radios are pretty simple devices. They're inexpensive and fairly small - about the size of a telephone. Once plugged in, they sit silent until they receive a signal from one of the more than 650 radio stations of the National Weather Service. Then they sound the alarm. A spoken message with specific information and instructions for the listener follows.
After September 11, state disaster response officials here thought weather radios could prove just as useful during a terrorist attack as they do when tornadoes strike.
While South Dakota may at first seem an unlikely target, officials like Mike Milstead shudder at the thought of crop dusters spreading cattle diseases, or an attack on one of the four Missouri River dams here. Mr. Milstead is the sheriff of South Dakota's most populous county. He said weather radios have an advantage over television, or the radio you're listening to right now, because they automatically turn on to broadcast information when they receive the emergency signal.
Sheriff Milstead said, "If there was a hazardous substance released into the water, into the air, into their neighborhood, whether that was an accident, or an act of terrorism, this gives us the ability to wake people in the middle of the night and provide them with potentially life-saving instructions."
The fourteen weather radio stations in South Dakota reach nearly everyone in the state. But the alerts don't do any good if you don't own a weather radio, and Sheriff Milstead wants them to become as common as smoke detectors, which can be found in just about every home and commercial building in the country.
South Dakota just bought 5,000 weather radios. And this week state emergency management personnel have distributed them to universities, hospitals, law enforcement agencies and child care centers, like one in Sioux Falls.
State emergency management coordinator Kristi Turman said weather radios in public places are part of the country's new domestic preparedness landscape. Mrs. Turman said, "We're all security conscious, and I think it will provide a sense of - not well being - but a sense of security to a lot of people, knowing that South Dakota has these radios in place, and they'll be able to get information quickly."
Mrs. Turman also helped formalize an agreement between South Dakota and the National Weather Service that gives state and local emergency officials access to the radio network.
National Weather Service Meteorologist Todd Heitkamp said a few state and local governments have made such arrangements in the past, but South Dakota's is by far the most comprehensive. "Anyone at this point in time, local law enforcement or government officials, can call the National Weather Service and have us activate that weather radio in a non-weather-related emergency. I don't think there's another state that can say they're as well-covered, weather-radio-wise, and also have the agreement in place," he said.
Mr. Heitkamp expects other states to follow South Dakota's lead. Certainly different technologies, like satellite broadcasts, could be developed and implemented to do the same thing. But he and others agree - it's far cheaper to use the existing infrastructure of the weather radio network to fill this post-September 11 need.