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Storming the Weather

A new PDA from WeatherData could revolutionize the way reporters collect weather information and send it back to stations. Known as the Storm Hawk Reporter, the PDA uses a combination of Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking and advanced National Weather Service reporting systems. It gives reporters instant access to their location on radar images so they can quickly and safely cover local weather events.

“We believe this system can do for weather systems what the first portable news camera did for news coverage,” says WeatherData founder and CEO Mike Smith.

The system, which includes both the PDA device and SelectWarn, an on-air Doppler radar system at the station, makes use of a new, more accurate storm-tracking system available from the National Weather Service.

The old system issues countywide warnings for storms, even if parts of the county are clearly out of harm’s way. The new system, which uses a technology called “geocoded polygon” warnings, tracks a storm by its anticipated path and gives specific longitude and latitude coordinates of that path.

High Accuracy Rate

Smith says that makes it 70% more accurate than the countywide warnings. “By using that data, users can concentrate their efforts on people genuinely at risk and reassure other viewers they aren’t,” he says. The cost of a full system, with both Storm Hawks and SelectWarn, ranges from $50,000 to $100,000, says Smith, depending on the number of Storm Hawk units purchased. (They run $1,500 each.)

KWCH Wichita, Kan., has been using the system, introduced at last year’s NAB conference, since August. It now has 15 Storm Hawks in use by meteorologists, reporters and storm chasers. The first true severe-weather season will begin in about a month. KWCH meteorologist Kelsey Angle believes the units will give the station a big competitive advantage. “It’s hyper-local information that only we will have,” he says. “Other stations will have to ask the reporter where it is located, and a lot of times the reporters will be wrong. But with GPS, we’ll know exactly where they are.”

Six NBC owned-and-operated stations recently began using five Storm Hawk Reporter units along with SelectWarn. One, WCAU Philadelphia, hasn’t used it yet for a tornado or flash flood, but the system did help the station keep up-to-date on snow measurements.

“Even though snowfall is a slow event, it was nice to see the amounts pop up automatically on the radar and map,” says WCAU meteorologist Dave Warren. The other NBC O&Os are KNBC Los Angeles, WMAQ Chicago, KXAS Dallas/Ft. Worth, WNCN Raleigh, N.C., and WJAR Providence, R.I.

Improved Reporting

Smith says the system provides two major advantages: First, reporters can be more safely and accurately deployed, because GPS gives users an instant sense of where they are in relation to a weather event. The direction the reporter is traveling is always at the top of the screen.

“It’s far safer than having reporters trying to guess,” says Smith. “And with trees or buildings, it’s sometimes hard to even see the sky to know where a tornado or storm is located.”

The system also improves reporting. The PDAs are outfitted with wireless-transmission capabilities, a low-resolution camera for shooting video and still pictures, and a cellphone. A reporter can track a storm closely, shoot a quick video and send it back to the station.

Smith decided to tie Storm Hawk and SelectWarn together while he was in the field testing Storm Hawk. He saw a tornado funnel touch down a few miles away and attempted to call 911, a local radio station and local authorities. All numbers were busy or unreachable. “The phones were ringing and ringing, because personnel were busy dealing with the storms,” he says.

Storm Hawk removes that frustration. Reporters can send back information with three taps on the PDA screen. If they see a tornado funnel, they can tap in its distance and direction from their current location and then tap another menu describing the type of funnel it is. That information is then relayed to the station and incorporated into SelectWarn. It can be on-air within five seconds of transmission.