Sometimes, Low Tech Is the Best Answer

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on February 13, 2008

Accoring to this Reuters story, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration wants to build a system that could use cell phones or other technology to wake up sleeping Americans to warn them of tornadoes or other impending disasters.

Not a bad idea, but the fact is that the U.S. had such a system and it worked well for decades: the system of Civil Defense warning sirens built during and after World War II. These are still in use in tornado-prone areas and thoughout Hawaii, where they are part of a tsunami warning system. They remain very effective if very low tech. But in much of the nation, the warning sirens have been decommissioned. So now the government wants to spend who knows how much for a whiz-bang solution to a long-solved problem.

Reader Comments

Rohan Samarajiva

February 14, 2008 9:16 PM

Actually, the problem is not solved. For the NWS alerts you need a dedicated device. I owned one when I lived in Ohio. Few people do.

There are two good solution available: WorldSpace (XM in US and Canada) has developed a set that has integrated the remote activation feature of NWS sets into satellite radios. But this suffers from the weakness that people will have to go out and buy the higher-cost sat radios.

Cell broadcasting would be the best solution for public warning.

Steve Wildstrom

February 15, 2008 10:06 AM

My point is that the government is proposing to spend millions, perhaps billions, on a high-tech solution to a problem for which it once had a perfectly good low-tech answer. Yes, cell phone notification can give more detailed information on the nature of the emergency and recommended action. But if the sirens ever go off in Hawaii, people know to head for high ground, even if they're on the beach without their phones.

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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