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Where Is That %$#@%## Tornado?

On July 3rd, 1997, we were pursued by a killer tornado that roared through Dearborn on its way to Lake St. Claire near Detroit. In those few harrowing moments, as we witnessed park benches and other assorted debris fly past the window of our RV, we desperately needed to know where the tornado cell was and how we could best avoid it. It was a near-death experience for us, and although our on-board NOAA weather alert radio was urging us to take cover we had no way of knowing where we should go.

Trucking fleet operators, school bus dispatchers and public safety officers have long sought some form of an early warning system that would allow motorists to receive timely and accurate information about weather conditions and road hazards. Most state DOTs (Department of Transportation) have implemented some version of early warning programs such as the posting traffic flow information on web sites and/or the installation of lighted signs alerting motorists of slow traffic. Millions of dollars are being invested by firms seeking ways of packaging information about shopping opportunities and delivering them to captive audiences sitting in vehicles during their daily commutes.

There are a couple of systems in existence that, if they were fully developed and implemented, might one day provide the kind of information that we so desperately sought that afternoon in July. The programs are known as Safety Warning System (SWS) and Safety-Alert System (SAS). SAS is a proprietary program of Cobra Electronics Corporation, the makers of the #1 CB radio for truckers and a very successful line of radar detectors. The SAS is currently operating in its most basic mode for most of the country. The SAS targets the strobe light system that is installed on the light bars of hundreds of emergency vehicles and traffic control signals throughout the United States. When an emergency vehicle uses the strobe transmitter to change the traffic light to green, an alert flashes on the radar detector indicating that an emergency vehicle is nearby.

The more advanced and useful element of the program is being implemented extremely slowly. It requires a series of transmitters installed on the roadways around the country that can enable the broadcast of digital messages regarding hazards alerts. Cobra is releasing a new detector, the ESD-9230WX, in early summer that can deliver both voice and visual alerts from the NOAA "All Hazards Alert," as well as the Federal Emergency Alert System (which used to be the Emergency Broadcast System), and information about severe weather. The ESD-9230WX will cost about $180.

A more extensive program was developed in 1995 under the auspices of the Georgia Technical Research Institute and engineers from a consortium of mobile electronics firms including Bell-Tronics, Santeca Electronics, Uniden American and the Whistler Corporation. The SWS system also employs the K-band (24.1Ghz) and can transmit up to 64 pre-programmed text messages to radar detectors made by a number of firms. The messages are transmitted by the use of small transmitters that can either be mounted in a fixed location or attached to vehicles. For example, a mobile transmitter could be attached to a school bus providing alerts to drivers about the location of a bus picking up children. The alerts can be received within 1.5 miles of the receiver in ideal conditions. A few representative alerts are: "right lane closed ahead," "train approaching/at crossing," "ice on bridge ahead," "expect 10 minute delay," and "police in pursuit." Uniden's GPS-RD with just about every bell and whistle including GPS, electronic compass, elevation and SWS retails for $229.

The big problem with all of these road alert systems is the lack of transmitters currently in existence in the USA. Last week, I spoke with representatives of both Uniden and Cobra about their plans for increasing the effectiveness of their respective programs. It is an expensive and daunting task to equip the nation's DOT trucks with sufficient transmitters to be effective. One of the ardent evangelists of the SWS program is Janet Lee, and information about her program is available at

While it is doubtful that having a SWS or SAS-equipped receiver would really provide sufficient information to avoid a close encounter with a tornado, perhaps one day soon it WILL provide an effective warning about that stretch of black ice you might otherwise drive over! Next week, part three from my report from CES-2002.

Mark Sedenquist
Tucson, Arizona
January 21, 2002