NOAA system tries to outpace Mother Nature -

You can't fight Mother Nature, but officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration are using PCs to speed up their ability to keep ahead of her.


NOAA is building a PC network to let forecasters send instant warnings to areas in
danger of violent weather. The Radio Console Replacement System (RCS) will replace 1970s
consoles that don't work with new NOAA systems.


"This is part of NOAA's overall modernization effort," said Joanne
Courchesne, a NOAA meteorologist. "The problem is, with the increasing complexity of
systems, the current consoles take too long to get warnings out."


NOAA in late 1994 awarded a $3 million, RCS design contract to Communications &
Power Engineering Inc. of Carmarillo, Calif. The company is gearing up to produce 120 of
the new systems for NOAA at an estimated price of $10.6 million.


RCS will replace the eight-track tape player system that forced meteorologists to
record new messages for each geographic area they served.


Because most field offices monitor the weather for between six and 13 transmitter
stations, areas served last often experienced long delays as forecasters got warnings out
to other areas.


"With the new system, we can get information out to all the transmitters at one
time," Courchesne said. "Now an operator has to push seven buttons just to send
a message to one transmitter. It takes time."


The RCS lets forecasters with Pentium PCs click on weather dangers that are stored in a
database and send automated warnings to different transmitters.


With a few clicks, customized warnings can be sent to many geographic locations
simultaneously, she said. A microphone also lets meteorologists record broadcasts directly
onto the computer and send them out to radio and television stations if needed.


Eventually, NOAA wants to have an automated voice deliver system for emergency
warnings, which would save even more time, Courchesne said.


In areas where seconds can mean getting to a tornado shelter before the storm hits, any
time savings can help, she said. So far, however, most people have not liked the automated
voice component of the system, Courchesne said.


"That's our biggest problem right now," she said. "But it looks as
though the potential for improvement is very good right now."


For now, during emergency broadcasts, the voice will still be human. Courchesne said
NOAA might use the synthesized voice for routine temperature and top-of-the-hour
broadcasts.


She said the new version is more than just a PC version of the old eight-track system
because it lets NOAA highly customize weather forecasts.


"The system will make a much more sophisticated broadcast," Courchesne said.
"You can set the zones to play every 10 minutes, and you can change that based on the
time of year or by day of the week. And you can have a special marine suite or a mountain
forecast play, so you can tailor broadcasts quite nicely."


About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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