Emergency responders training on new faster, more precise radar

Posted Wednesday, Mar. 19, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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National Weather Service meteorologists got their first insight into what a local network of more precise radar units will provide when a storm system rumbled across North Texas on Saturday.

Proof of the faster radar’s advantages was evident, said Mark Fox, warning and coordination meteorologist for the weather service’s Fort Worth office.

“We could see better details. We were able to see where the heavy rain was located,” Fox said Monday in Arlington at the North Central Texas Council of Governments as more than 150 emergency responders began training on how to utilize the radar.

“We are learning how to use the data. It’s coming in a little faster than what we are used to but it’s also allowing us to see a lot more fine details,” he said.

But officials caution that the full capabilities of the radar system called CASA, for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere, won’t likely be on display until later this year.

So far, only two of the $500,000 radar units — one at the University of Texas at Arlington, the other in Midlothian — are fully operational. Four more are expected to be online soon.

“We should see good coverage. It’s a very complex process but we are getting there,” said Brenda Phillips, a co-leader of the project developed by the CASA Engineering Research Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

By summer, eight of the radars, each with a range of about 40 miles, should provide a ring of overlapping coverage that will extend over the core of Dallas-Fort Worth, she said.

Eventually, 16 to 20 radars would be needed to overlay the 16-county area of the council of governments, which is the coordinating partner on the public, academic and, hopefully, private enterprise, officials say.

Experts say the system will allow an additional five to 20 minutes of early warning when severe weather strikes.

Funded by a National Science Foundation grant, the 10-year, $40 million project is the work of a consortium of government agencies, universities and industry partners.

The program is providing the DFW region the $4 million to pay for the eight initial radars. Site hosts, such as the city of Fort Worth, pay for installation as well as power, Internet connections and maintenance.

A consortium of local governments will cover the first year’s operational costs of $500,000, according to Amanda Everly, who is coordinating the program for the council of governments.

The system proved its mettle during a five-year test run in rural Oklahoma, Phillips said.

“We vetted the technology in our Oklahoma test bed and by the end we had these lifesaving examples,” she said. “Here we are building up a much more complex system but we are confident we are going to see the same results.”

Dr. V. Chandrasekar, associate dean for international research at Colorado State University, who is walking emergency responders through the complexities of the system, expects tangible benefits to be on display by summer.

“It will really help. This is going to make it easier for emergency responders to identify local problems,” he said. “They will be able to interpret this information.”

The radar makes scans every minute instead of every five minutes by conventional Doppler radar, he said, affording more detail as well as overlapping views of storm cells, he said.

What CASA does best is provide precise details and locations for heavy rains and high winds, giving emergency managers a better idea of where to pre-position responders, Chandrasekar said.

Long-term, the radar will help the weather service narrow its warnings down to much smaller areas, Fox said.

“I think we are going to be able to narrow in on where we need to focus our time with first responders and emergency management traffic,” he said.

During a sleet event March 2, using just the one radar in Arlington, the weather service was able to provide a more precise forecast for Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, Fox said.

“We were able to give them a little more detail on what was going on. That can be very important.”

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981 Twitter: @stevecamp

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