Better weather data aid safety

1st responders can track winds in explosions, spills

`No other competitor can do it'

Service gets information from 300 sites in state

February 21, 2005|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

A year ago, if terrorists had set off a chemical, biological or radiological device in Baltimore, emergency managers might have had to rely on wind data from Baltimore-Washington International Airport - seven miles south - to figure out where the deadly plume might be headed.

Today, they can steer their computer mice to any of 300 weather stations across the state - most of them atop school buildings - and see exactly how the wind is blowing and where residents and fire and police personnel might be most at risk.

The Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), local police and fire officials have tapped into weather data collected 24 hours a day by WeatherBug, a commercial weather service provider based in Gaithersburg.

"It's probably the most relevant, real-time data that you can get in the state. There's no other competitor that can do it," said Warren Campbell, deputy director of technical support at MEMA.

The $300,000 annual fee paid by the state to WeatherBug's parent company, AWS Convergence Technologies, also provides data access for all county emergency managers and first responders in Maryland, Campbell said.

WeatherBug, which has 8,000 weather stations across the country, makes its data available to anyone via the Internet. The basic service is free but supported by advertising. An ad-free service is available by paid subscription.

Its chief selling point is the density of its weather network. No Marylander lives far from one of its 300 stations. Most were built at schools in exchange for free access to the data by math and science classes.

The network provides a far more detailed picture of weather conditions in Maryland than anything available from the National Weather Service, with a handful of airport stations, or from the state Department of Transportation, with 57 installations.

The value of such coverage became apparent March 6 last year when a gust front packing 40- to 50-mph winds swept across the state. When it reached the Baltimore harbor, it capsized a water taxi, spilling 25 people into the frigid Patapsco River. Five tourists perished.

The National Weather Service said its forecasters had watched the front by radar and saw no serious threat until the winds reached the harbor at 4:05 p.m. An urgent marine warning was issued, but it was too late for the water taxi Lady D.

WeatherBug officials said their stations tracked the gust front for an hour before it struck the harbor.

"If the data had been being used day to day at the Weather Service level, they would have seen we had tracked that front," said John J. Doherty, a senior vice president for AWS.

In fact, the National Weather Service did have access to WeatherBug data last March at the agency's Forecast Systems Laboratory in Boulder, Colo.

But the readings were not being used for local forecast decisions. The government had not determined whether the private instruments were accurate.

Since September, however, a memorandum of understanding with the government has made the WeatherBug network available for local forecasters to use as they see fit, Doherty said.

At MEMA, meanwhile, planners had been seeking more detailed weather data well before the water taxi accident.

"We were looking for ... real-time weather data, particularly for first responders who may be responding to hazardous materials events - spills and releases," Campbell said.

The National Weather Service data were not detailed enough for developing "plume models" - maps of where the winds would blow toxic clouds. "You'd get whatever weather station was closest, but in many cases that information is not very relevant to the actual scene," Campbell said.

Since August, WeatherBug has provided MEMA access to its professional "Streamer" service. It allows emergency managers to integrate weather data from the National Weather Service, the Department of Transportation and WeatherBug's 300 stations. It is accessed using digital maps displayed on PCs and a projected screen at the state's Emergency Operating Center in Reisterstown.

The maps can be combined with other systems to show how the weather data relate to population densities, evacuation routes, hospitals, firehouses and sites housing hazardous materials.

In the event of a spill, MEMA officials would feed in WeatherBug data, such as wind speed, direction and humidity, then add the chemical and its transport characteristics, and generate a map of the areas most at risk.

"You know which area to ask people to shelter in place or to evacuate, and it shows you the areas you don't want to evacuate through," Campbell said.

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