Tornado alarm

Pamela Harrel and a gadget prototype. 6/7/2012 (Tyrone Walker/postandcourier.com)

Pamela Harrell has told the story before, the one about how she came to invent her tornado alarm.

It was 2005, and twisters were ravaging parts of Kentucky, Indiana and the Midwest.

Harrell, an Indiana native then living in Georgia, saw a television interview with a man who narrowly escaped one of the fatal windstorms.

“His comment was, ‘We didn’t hear the sirens,’” Harrell said. “I turned to my husband and said, ‘That doesn’t seem right.’ ”

She figured there must be a better way to warn people, a system that could be heard even if the tornado blew through in the dead of night and the gusts and hail effectively muted the local government alarm.

“He said, ‘You’re a smart woman. Go on and invent it,’ ” she recalled in a recent interview.

That was less than seven years ago but it might as well be a lifetime ago for Harrell.

Her husband, Terry, died in a car accident in 2007, just as she was about to pitch a prototype of the Tornado Alarm System to the public.

Harrell persevered, but just when her idea was on the cusp of becoming a commercial reality in 2009, her business relationship with the production company went sour, and the alarm system also met an untimely end.

Her retirement savings were gone, and it seemed her dream to help save people like the man on TV would remain just that.

Now 59, engaged and living on James Island, Harrell said she’s ready to try again.

A property manager by day, Harrell finally received a patent for her device in May and has started searching for someone to license the technology, build the box and bring it to market.

And this second go-round, she’s savvier.

“I’ve learned a lot in the process,” she said, referring to her first foray into mass-producing her invention. “I was probably naive.”

Harrell paused. “I wasn’t probably — I was naive,” she continued. “I try not to let it leave a bitter taste in my mouth.”

A mathematician by training, Harrell worked as a merchandise manager in Southern California for Panasonic and Sanyo before moving to North Georgia in 1988. That’s where she met her husband and where she started a computer training company she ran until last year.

Having experienced the storms during her Midwestern childhood as well as in Georgia, Harrell had always been fascinated by tornadoes.

But after that fateful TV broadcast and her husband’s encouragement, she set to doing something about them.

“I spent an entire year doing research and firming up the way I wanted the product to work,” she said.

Harrell liked the utility of weather radios, the geographically specific updates from the National Weather Service.

But the constant computer-voice chatter about all kinds of relatively insignificant weather events quickly became white noise.

“When we did focus groups, people told us, ‘Oh, I have a weather radio. It’s unplugged right now because it’s annoying,’ ” Harrell recalled.

She wanted to be able to filter out everything but a tornado warning, a “TOR” in National Weather Service parlance, in the chosen locale and have that one event trigger an alarm the user would hear every time, without fail.

Working with a small father-and-son electronics firm in Georgia, she developed a prototype, complete with circuit boards, transistors and a rudimentary user interface, and took it to the 2007 Invention and New Product Exposition in Pittsburgh.

There, Harrell won the right to display her device at the Electronic Retailing Association show in Las Vegas, and she was off and running.

She signed a contract with Rapha Products Group, a Georgia company that specializes in taking inventions and making them viable products, Harrell said.

Everything went well for a time.

Harrell said Home Depot agreed to buy the units when they were ready, and her vendor sent the specifications to a manufacturer in China.

Harrell even visited the plant a few hours outside of Shanghai.

But when Harrell saw what came back from China, she was floored. Not only did it not work, she said, but when she sought an independent appraisal of the build, “it was deemed poor quality, poorly manufactured, a fire hazard,” among other issues.

“I was so devastated by it that I ceased working with them and canceled our agreement,” she said.

Requests for comment sent to three email addresses on Rapha’s website bounced back.

Home Depot did not respond to a phone message seeking comment last week.

When the dust settled, Harrell said she had lost $100,000.

“So after that experience, I guess you could say I was a little gun shy and took a step back from it,” she said.

But Harrell received a utility patent for a “single-event alert” device on May 15, and now she is “gearing it back up again.”

She has a fan page on Facebook and is trying to recruit potential investors.

In the meantime, Harrell keeps her latest version of the device on at all times and hopes that someday it’ll become indispensable for any home, just as a smoke detector is today.

She said the price would be about $50, but more than doing well with her invention, Harrell says, she wants to do good.

“I want somebody to tell me it helped save their life,” she said.

Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906.