by Kim Powell
MIDLAND - We've all heard the familiar tone that can be heard for miles indicating that there may be a tornado in the area, but what if there was a siren that could tell you everything you needed to know before disaster strikes? "What is the threat? A tornado warning, a severe thunderstorm warning, a flash flood warning, when and where is it going to happen? What are the impacts and what should you do in response to that to save your life and property?" Robert Willis, the inventor of LAWS said. "You can't do it with a tone siren."
That's why LAWS was invented. It stands for Local Area Warning System. Willis, a former firefighter and a storm chaser, came up with the concept eight years ago while listening to a weather radio in his car. It's not unusual that people turn to weather radios to get all of the information they need during severe storms, but what about the people who are outside?
"I'd drive through communities and I'd see kids playing in parks and kids at the school and people assembling in public areas in downtown, and they would have no idea that this incredibly severe weather is just baring down on them," Willis explained.
It's specifically designed to alert anyone who is outside so they can know what the situation is and how to get to safety.
"What we wanted to target with this particular device is that these are heavily populated areas in the evenings when you have a lot of sports going on, people running the trails, just lots of events occur at these parks in Midland," Patrick Repman, the Emergency Management Coordinator for Midland, said.
The city of Midland started using the LAWS units about one year ago to start moving away from the older technology of a standard tornado siren. They're strategically placed throughout the city in nine different parks and can send out a loud, clear message with flashing lights to park patrons.
"Those type of explicit instructions can save lives and that's what this product really, I think, is the benchmark of what we're really trying to do," Willis said.
But what if the skies are clear and you hear that all-too-familiar tone siren? It might not just be a test. There might be another type of dangerous situation occurring, such as a gas leak, a wildfire, or even an active shooter in the area.
"That's when the radio interface takes hold and literally you can activate any one LAWS unit, a group of LAWS units, or all of the LAWS units in the city and provide that sort of information," Willis said.
So far, Texas has several of these units throughout the state, and one community in Michigan has also gotten on board with the new technology. Midland Fire Chief Robert Isbell says he's been happy with the performance of the units and has gotten plenty of positive feedback.
"We're very pleased with the performance of them and we hope we never have to use them, but we know they're there for the folks that would be at need," Chief Isbell said.
"I think it's great. I think technology can be used for positive things all the time and I feel safer knowing that I'm out here with him--especially because he's not my own child--knowing that if something bad happens, we know how to get somewhere safe, and that kind of thing makes me feel comfortable," Brittany Rogers, a park patron, said.