Maryland tornado alert system comes up short

Help is on the way from cell phone companies

JACKSONVILLE, Md. - The roaring blare of sirens, like the one mounted on top of the Jacksonville Volunteer Fire House, dates back to World War II, yet in modern-day Maryland each siren can mean something different.

Assistant Chief Andrew Laird says here it alerts firefighters that it's time to answer the call.

"...and from that point, we have three minutes to get to the station and get on the road," said Laird.

At the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, based at Camp Fretterd, MEMA Director Richard Muth says the state has no sure-fire means of alerting residents that they're in the path of a tornado.

"It is patchwork work right now," said Muth, "So we have a lot of alerts that go out at the local level. We just send out a broadcast to all the emergency managers in the state about five minutes ago about today's storm."

Muth says with 17 confirmed tornadoes in Maryland since mid-April, the need for a better means of alerting citizens has become critical, but help is already on the way.

Two weeks ago, the country's major wireless carriers agreed to send out severe weather alerts to customers in specific geographic areas through global positioning technology.

"It's very area specific, so if you are in Baltimore, it will only reach you if you're under a storm warning and it will go directly to your cell phones or your iPad or whatever you have and there's no charge to you," said Muth.

In the meantime, Muth says you can buy a weather alert radio for about $40 that instantly goes off when the National Weather Service transmits an emergency.

Also he says you and your family should discuss a plan of action.

"A tornado can come out of the sky... you may have a minute's notice, two minutes' notice if you're lucky, so anything you can do ahead of time would help and then the key to that is practice, practice, practice."

Through the Personal Localized Alerting Network or PLAN, the cell phone companies will begin sending weather texts in New York City by the end of the year, and they're expected to expand that service into Maryland some time next year.


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