Special Report: Severe weather systems

Live camera integration allows Baron’s FasTrac storm tracking system to spotlight areas of the community on-air.

This is the time of year storm tracking systems become the cornerstone of your weather center. And now is the time to make sure your weather systems are locked and loaded for the stormy days ahead.

Arm yourself with knowledge

While daily weather is an essential element of a well-rounded weather presence, severe weather is when broadcasters' reputations are built and ruined. So stay on top of things. Know what kind of technology is out there.

When shopping, feel free to ask prospective vendors from where their weather data is obtained. Do they generate their own algorithms, or do they rely on slower, less specific technology? Proprietary algorithms can provide more accurate detection of the strongest areas of a storm, as well as a far greater timeliness.

The speed of the weather systems themselves is another crucial element. Select a storm tracker that also serves as a multi-purpose system that can be used for effective year-round weather coverage, not just during severe weather. Recent innovations have resulted in the advent of real-time displays that require no rendering, allowing your weather team to create weather shows quickly and get to air faster.

A renderless system eliminates the multi-box approach, running everything out of a single CPU. Having storm tracking and graphics display capability in one box not only streamlines the technology inside the weather center, but also provides an additional cost savings.

Work as a team

With Baron’s Mobile Threat Net mobile tracking system, you can share your radar information with EMAs or give your news vehicles on-board weather data.

Oftentimes, engineers must work closely with the weather team. This happens often at small stations that are forced to spread resources across multiple departments. During the weeks ramping up to severe weather season, everyone involved should meet to determine the personnel who will be responsible for certain aspects of severe weather — weekend or late night coverage, for example. Knowing the duties beforehand will help prevent confusion once an actual outbreak does occur.

Make sure the weather team has access to the most appropriate NEXRAD sites. We recommend referencing at least four sites — one in the nearest major city, and three others in the nearest outlying areas. You can also ask if your vendor can provide the ability to display multiple live radar feeds in one unified display. Nationwide composites of radar data are also useful, and in the case of some vendors, they are more timely than conventional NEXRAD delivery.

From a community standpoint, have a plan of action. Some storm trackers feature the built-in ability to air digital images submitted by viewers. Work with the weather team to create a process for requesting, receiving and displaying such viewer-oriented images.

Above all — practice, practice, practice. Work with your weather team to prepare drills.

And finally, formulate a backup plan in case one of your data sources goes down. Weather vendors have redundancy in places that should quickly restart the flow of data in the unlikely event a dropout does occur. Make sure your vendor has the capacity to get you back up quickly. Keep the vendor's customer service number handy, just in case.

Train yourself

We can't emphasize enough the importance of training seminars. Advise your weather staff to attend conferences on as many of your weather products as possible. If you've got some outstanding technical questions that can only be answered in-depth, you may want to consider attending yourself.

Be sure to look for seminars that cover the science behind meteorology and its practical day-to-day applications. After all, it's of little use to see an item of interest on the weather display and not understand its significance.

Tutorial DVDs serve as a supplement to seminars and traditional operations manuals. In many cases, they may prove more beneficial because they allow users to actually see the operations being performed, as well as provide the ability to instantly rewind or skip ahead to other sections.

Optimize the weather systems

Make sure the latest software updates have been made to all your weather systems before severe weather season begins. Reboot the computers and then verify their performance. If you live in a warm climate, you may not have used the instant alert crawl for some time. Run a test to make sure the crawl works properly and that it keys correctly in the display.

Encourage the weather team to go through highlighted city names in the storm tracker and configure their display range. This way, well-known areas will appear in the wider, zoomed-out views, with small communities becoming visible when the view range gets tighter. Your audience will be more easily able to get their bearings and see how the storm information relates to them.

The color-coded county maps in your alert crawl are especially effective because they deliver one-glance warning information. Make sure the counties you want to highlight are configured to turn on once an alert comes in. Some storm trackers offer the ability to display county warnings in the mapping. If you have them, make sure these warnings are operational, too.

Reach into the community

Remote weather sensors are a popular way for stations to get their presence felt in the community. But after a long winter, and before the storms arrive, pay a visit to each of your sensors for a quick inspection.

Storm vans go a long way toward establishing your identity in the community, so make sure yours is in good running condition.

Check all moving parts, and make sure the connections are dry. Now is a good time to perform any calibrations, as well. Make sure any remote weather cams are in good shape, too.

The value of sensors extends far beyond their visibility and a graphic, of course. Being able to integrate live readings into your weather display gives meteorologists a localized look at conditions during severe weather. Select products in which the readings are shown as an overlay on the mapping display.

Doppler radar is an excellent tool for determining where there may be a tornado. John McLaughlin, chief meteorologist at KCCI-TV in Des Moines, IA, said the addition of live pan/tilt/zoom webcams has allowed his station to actually see a tornado.

Last November, the station tracked a rare, late-fall tornado as it moved into the community of Woodward and destroyed several homes. Many residents sought shelter, not because they saw the radar image of a possible tornado, but because they could see the actual tornado live on television.

With nearly 70 sensors reporting data, there is just too much for a meteorologist to keep track of everything. Therefore, McLaughlin's team coupled its webcams with storm tracking data generated by their Baron FasTrac. When the wind exceeds 50mph or heavy rain begins, the weather stations automatically instant messages the office and say, “Hey, look at me! Something important is going on here!”

As an essential part of your community presence, your storm van also needs to be in good running condition, especially after a hard winter. Schedule any necessary maintenance, and be sure to calibrate any onboard weather sensors. Don't forget to update any onboard software, and verify that the new software version works correctly.

Maximize Doppler radar

Preventative maintenance is the key to making sure your live Doppler radar will perform well through the turbulent weather months. Your radar vendor can perform inspections and maintenance, catching any calibration, sensitivity and waveguide issues, at a minimal cost.

Some stations elect to share their live radar feed with local emergency management agencies. Choose a product that provides EMA offices with a weather analysis system that lets them storm track and remotely communicate with their spotter networks. If your station has a FasTrac display, they can instantly share information with your weather team.

If you have radar command and control in your weather center, run that through a quick test to make sure the interface is working well. That capability will help meteorologists more effectively use the radar on-air, performing sector scans and the like with ease. If you don't have command and control, ask your vendor how to get it. Changing rotation speeds, range, modes and elevation angles becomes much easier and reduces your number of trips to the radar site.

Reap the benefits

Severe weather season presents numerous challenges to broadcasters, but viewers will note your success. Take the time now to make sure your capabilities are operational. It can alleviate some frustration later on, and when the rewards come in, you can sit back and enjoy a job well done.

David Starnes is director of sales for Baron Services.