program warns hearing impaired of severe weather
By Matthew Broaddus Herald Managing Editor
Individuals with hearing problems are a little safer in Oklahoma thanks to a new storm warning program.
B.J. Pope, director of Creek County Emergency Management, said that deaf and hard-of-hearing Oklahomans can now receive hazardous weather information directly from the National Weather Service through alphanumeric pagers.
The new program, called OKWARN (Weather Alert Remote Notification), is a federal grant to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management that will support a system to serve the deaf and hard-of-hearing community statewide, expanding a pilot program started in 2001.
Pope said that anyone can contact CCEM for help signing up for the program.
"If you can't make it to us, we will come to you," he said.
Individuals who sign up for OK-WARN will receive forecasts, watches and warnings from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's NWS local forecast offices.
Included will be information about tornadoes, thunderstorms, winter storms, flash floods, river floods and high winds.
Pope said the pagers can be set to just receive specific information, depending on what the user wants to receive.
OK-WARN is believed to be the only program in the United States that directly relays NWS alerts through pagers to people who are deaf or hard of-hearing.
"We're honored to be involved in this program which represents an important partnership between federal and state government and the private sector," said Albert Ashwood, OEM director.
Qualified deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals can sign up for the free program by completing a form available online at www.odcem.state.ok.us/okwarn.htm. The forms will also be available at Communication Services for the Deaf offices in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, where staff members will provide assistance completing the form.
"We are excited to be a part of this important effort," said Richard Smith, warning coordination meteorologist for the NOAA National Weather Service Norman Forecast Office. "Weather can turn dangerous quickly in Oklahoma, and it's critical that everyone be able to receive life saving warnings from the National Weather Service."
Data originating from NWS is transmitted via satellite to the OK-WARN system at OEM. Software developed by Weather Affirmation, LLC, of Oklahoma City, condenses and sends the information to local paging companies for distribution to pager users.
OK-WARN participants must have their own pager and have a service provider.
Pope said a Metrocall pager can be purchased for $29.95 and the service is $7.95 per month.
"This is truly an answered prayer for us," Pope said. "Now everyone will have the same access to weather warnings across the county."
The original idea for OK-WARN was conceived by Vincent "Bim" Wood, a research meteorologist at the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) in Norman. Wood, who is deaf, conducted a nine-month survey following the tornado outbreak on May 3, 1999. His survey found that 81 percent of deaf and hard-of hearing people have experienced fear about being unprepared for weather emergencies.
Wood interviewed many Oklahomans caught unaware by hazardous weather, including a deaf man who fortunately took shelter after lip reading only the word "closet" during a televised weather alert.
"Deaf and hard-of-hearing people want access to the same critical information that hearing people receive from the audio portion of emergency broadcasts," Wood explained. "We thought alphanumeric pagers would be an ideal notification for pager users who are concerned about hazardous weather catching them off guard."
Wood's employer, NSSL, is a sister agency of the NWS Norman Forecast Office, which is the source of hazardous weather information for central and western Oklahoma and western north Texas. Both agencies are part of the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. When Wood shared his findings with NWS officials, they suggested modifying the pager system to send weather alerts to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
"The OK-WARN weather pager system is great," said Susan Nelson, specialist on deafness for the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services' Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Unit, who will help inform the deaf community about the benefits of using OK-WARN. Nelson, who is deaf, knows first-hand that typical mediums for weather information such as television and radio are not effective for people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing.
"During the May 1999 tornado, I would like to have had an emergency weather alert system to warn me where the tornado was going," Nelson said. "Radios continue to work for hearing people, but my daughter who was 9 years old at that time had to mouth to me what the radio was saying so we could determine if it was safe to come out or not. OK-WARN provides a way to continue getting information even if the TV is out."
For more information regarding the program, go to www.odcem.state.ok.us/okwarn.htm or go contact CCEM at 224-227-6359
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