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Controllers Call on FAA to Lift Ban on Weather Radios in Towers - (3/13/2007)

WASHINGTON – With many states observing Severe Weather Awareness Week, air traffic controllers are urging the Federal Aviation Administration to lift its ban on weather radios in air traffic control towers so controllers can receive the latest severe weather and tornado warnings to fill in the gaps left by radar equipment that only detects precipitation. 

The FAA banned weather radios and all AM-FM radios that controllers used to monitor stations on the Emergency Alert System last Labor Day weekend as part of its unilateral imposition of work rules. 

The agency initially exempted weather radios from the ban, even confirming for reporters explicitly last December that one of its own managers installed a weather radio at the control tower at Daytona Beach International Airport just two days after a Christmas Day tornado roared within 150 yards of the tower and carved a destructive path through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. But the FAA did an about-face in late January, declaring the weather radios officially banned and yanking the one out of Daytona Beach Tower, again putting the safety of controllers and the flying public at risk. 

“It’s really just amazing to me that we have to even continue to ask this from an agency that says it is committed to aviation safety. It’s such a no-brainer,” National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Patrick Forrey said. “Don’t believe it when the FAA tells you we have every possible weather tool at our fingertips. There is no tool available to tower controllers that can detect a tornado within a thunderstorm. We must have either a weather radio or access to the Emergency Alert System to get the latest weather bulletins.” 

Forrey added that while a select few towers, like New York-JFK, have advanced equipment that can identify wind shear, it is not like Doppler technology that television meteorologists have which shows rotations within thunderstorm supercells that are indicative of tornadoes and also predict the path of those storms. “The FAA can supply access to low-cost alternatives to enhance situation awareness,” Forrey said. “We need weather radios in the towers so we at least have a fighting chance to keep up with the latest weather information given to the public from these meteorologists who are tracking severe storms.” 

Just days after the radio ban took effect last September, a severe weather system spawned tornadoes near both DuPage Tower in Illinois and Lincoln Tower in Nebraska. With FAA management having removed radios from all towers, neither facility’s controllers knew of the impending danger nearby. At Lincoln, two controllers were on duty with no supervisors at a late hour in the day. Tornado sirens sounded, an event that, according to controllers’ own orders, mandates the use of weather radios, radios and televisions to monitor the weather. But there was nothing in the tower to use. 

At DuPage, a tornado came within two miles of the tower. But controllers had no way of seeing it because heavy rains reduced visibility to a quarter of a mile. The controllers eventually evacuated when one controller received a personal call alerting him of the situation. The next day, the controllers notified the supervisor and stated that the radio that was in the tower, which management took away, would have alerted the staff sooner. The supervisor replied, "You should have looked out the window." 

During the Christmas Day storm in Daytona Beach, had the controllers had their radio, they would have received the tornado warnings that were broadcast to the public. At the time, the tower controllers were vectoring a Comair regional jet (Delta Connection) to the airport but, without any knowledge of the tornado embedded in the severe weather, could not warn the pilots.  

Fortunately, the aircraft landed safely after the tornado hit the airport, but, as the Daytona Beach News-Journal wrote in a Jan. 25, 2007 editorial: “Controllers are working without a contract at the moment … Maybe the new (FAA) work rules are the FAA's attempt to pressure its employees. Maybe they're just work rules that may or may not survive the next contract. Either way, the ban on weather radios seems foolish. Controllers obviously should focus on their job. But safety is part of that job. The FAA can police how weather radios are listened to. Banning such radios, especially at airports in Florida, is going too far and defies intuitive safety measures.” 

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