Tuesday, June 12, 2007
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FBI probes bogus reports to NWS

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[June 12, 2007]  WAUSAU, Wis. (AP) -- The FBI is looking for someone sending bogus information that caused the National Weather Service to issue unnecessary warnings, and forecasters worried that such alarms won't be taken seriously, authorities said Monday.

The false reports persuaded the weather service to issue at least four severe thunderstorm warnings that should not have been issued and caused confusion in confirming damage from a tornado, according to Tom Schwein, an administrator for the weather service's 14-state regional office in Kansas City, Mo.

Schwein likened the culprit -- who sent the reports to forecasters on the weather service's Web page -- to someone who pulls a fire alarm when there is no fire.

"One thing we don't want to be doing is crying wolf and then people tend to discount the warnings," he said. "You want people to take action when you put out the warning."

The misleading information appeared believable, Schwein said, because it came during bouts of severe weather and included data common to those types of storms. Such bogus tips mean forecasters must more carefully scrutinize public reports during severe weather, when time is critical, he said.

Investigators traced the Internet protocol address of the computer sending the false reports, and any new reports from that address are being flagged by every weather service office in the Upper Midwest, Schwein said.

"The seriousness is over. Right now, we want to stop the behavior," Schwein said.

On April 25, the weather service issued a tornado warning for Macon County, Ill., including the city of Blue Mound, based on information from trained spotters, said Chris Miller, warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service office in Lincoln, Ill.

Miller said his office got a note on its online site reporting the tornado caused damage in the town. Spotters contradicted that information.

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The false report caused spotters to neglect looking for actual tornadoes or cloud rotation and instead try to verify false reports.

Information from the suspect also provided the final evidence for forecasters to declare about four other severe thunderstorm warnings in the Upper Midwest that a review deemed unwarranted, Schwein said.

Forecasters base such decisions on what they see on radar, information from trained spotters and their own expertise of certain conditions, Schwein said.

The public can use a form on local weather service Web pages to anonymously report conditions -- including damage from a storm -- so forecasters can alert others to impending problems, Schwein said.

Accurate information from the public can be useful to forecasters because trained spotters are not everywhere, said Ken Rizzo, chief meteorologist for the weather service in Sullivan, Wis.

"It can tip the scales one way or another as far as issuing a tornado warning or severe thunderstorm warning," Rizzo said.

"We have gotten some great information, some important information from there, and we don't want to turn it off," he said.

Jeff Lanza, a special FBI agent in charge of the investigation in Kansas City, said the effort to track down the source of bogus information to the weather service could be the first in the U.S. Providing false information to the federal government is punishable by up to five years in prison.

[Associated Press; article by Robert Imrie, Associated Press writer]

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