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WASHINGTON -- Advances in communication and meteorological technology will lead to increasingly accurate and more timely information on weather disasters in the near future, experts say.
The mere existence of real-time storm information, however, doesn't assure public safety, they add.
To make a difference, that improved information must be disseminated widely, and to the right people, which is the challenge for emergency preparedness and response personnel, according to speakers at a symposium on real-time monitoring and warning for natural hazards in Washington last week.
New technology also means an increasing number of private companies providing weather information. Those companies may face new liability exposures for providing information in an emergency, one speaker noted.
The symposium was sponsored by the Boston-based, insurer-backed Institute for Business & Home Safety and by the Subcommittee on Natural Disaster Reduction, a group of 19 government agencies with an interest in catastrophe warning and mitigation.
The challenge facing weather forecasters and others responsible for getting disaster warnings out is "getting the maximum amount of information to the maximum amount of people," said Bob Ryan, chief meteorologist for WRC-TV in Washington and a former president of the American Meteorological Society.
Mr. Ryan noted that only two decades ago, satellite storm tracking and other monitoring techniques now taken for granted were new and crude technologies. Today, newer and more targeted communications technologies are becoming available to provide real-time information about approaching storms, he said.
Mr. Ryan noted, for example, that on the television station's World Wide Web site, WRC-TV provides a real-time weather map for its viewing area around the District of Columbia, as well as national satellite images and other weather-related information.
With a computer, he demonstrated how WRC-TV's home page (www.wxnet4. nbc4.com/home.html) and a national weather Web site maintained by Pennsylvania State University (www.ems.psu.edu/ wx/index.html) can provide detailed weather information.
In the near future, more complete and accurate information also could be provided via television. More television stations could make use of small animated graphics that could pop up on television screens during regular broadcasting and show, for example, a radar map of a severe storm, instead of text-based trailers that currently move across the top or bottom of a screen with lists of areas at risk, he said.
Other technologies for spreading information cited by Mr. Ryan and others could include using personal electronic pager services to provide warnings of impending bad weather.
The Walt Disney Co. in Burbank, Calif., uses existing information technology to attempt to identify potential disaster exposures and plan its responses, said William Michael, manager-crisis management.
"Basically, L.A. has everything," said Mr. Michael, noting that he has to be prepared for earthquakes, hazardous material spills, volcanoes, fires and even hurricanes.
Mr. Michael said he makes considerable use of public information resources, such as Web sites maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey (www.usgs.gov) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (www.fema.gov), to help identify potential exposures. Then he analyzes the impact of the exposure by asking such questions as: How will this affect company operations? How will it affect the employee base? he said.
Part of Disney's response has been to set emergency teams among its employees, and about 3,000 of Disney's 15,000 employees in Southern California are members of those teams, he said. Team members are trained in CPR and first aid to respond to emergency situations, said Mr. Michael. Employees also are encouraged to attended lunchtime seminars on a variety of disaster-related subjects, he said.
In addition, the company tracks potential weather problems through a variety of public and private sources, including local and city updates through two-way radio, a city emergency fax distribution system, pagers, cellular phones and the like, Mr. Michael said.
"As an emergency manager, I'm looking for new ways" to gather and disseminate information, he said.
One of the new ways information is being disseminated -- private weather services -- could mean new litigation, warned Glenn E. Tallia, senior counsel-atmospheric and space services and research for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington.
Mr. Tallia said the private weather service industry is growing, with annual revenues of about $300 million.
But private weather services do not enjoy the same protections against lawsuits as the National Weather Service -- a federal agency -- does, he said.
Instead, the private forecasters could face common law liability if they fail to disseminate emergency information quickly enough or broadcast an inaccurate or false report that leads to someone's injury, he said.
Mr. Tallia said that while he does not know of any suits having been filed against private weather services yet, it's "probably just a matter of time" before litigation emerges.