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Weather alerts expand to ‘Amber,’ road hazards

Starting this summer, weather alert radios will give listeners more than just warnings about foul weather

By Eliot Kleinberg
Palm Beach Post

Those weather alert radios that grab your attention when a tornado or other weather emergency is at hand soon will be able to tell you whether a child has been snatched or a flipped tanker on Florida's Turnpike is spewing chlorine gas.

The National Weather Service has received permission from the Federal Communications Commission to broadcast nonweather alerts on the special radios starting June 30.

Transmissions are accompanied by specific codes that trigger the special radios. Police or emergency managers that want to send out messages have the codes and computer connections to the system.

People who want to hear the nonweather messages will have to get new radios that will be available later this spring. Current radios will show only an ``unknown alert.''

The new setup has nothing to do with the system now used with broadcast stations. Virtually every station in Florida is part of the state's Emergency Alert System, and has agreed to broadcast emergency messages. Some stations have triggers in which any weather alert automatically interrupts programming. Other stations have agreed to have an engineer or other person make the call.

Nonweather messages are handled separately, since they don't come from the weather service, but they also have certain codes that could trigger an automatic interruption on a broadcast station.

''Amber Alerts'' for missing kids usually come through local law authorities or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Emergencies such as a chlorine spill would go through local emergency managers. Both weather and emergency officials have set high standards for when to trigger an alert, said Herb White, who runs the program for the National Weather Service.

''That is something that's always on our minds,'' White said. “We understand the phenomenon of false alarms and over-warning.''