Behind the scenes at the National Weather Service

Posted at: 08/09/2013 7:27 PM
Updated at: 08/09/2013 10:14 PM
By: Steve Flamisch

ALBANY -- It takes only a few mouse clicks for the National Weather Service (NWS) to send a severe weather alert to every radio station and television station in the Capital Region, meteorologists said during an exclusive tour of their facility Friday.

The NWS Albany Forecast Office, one of 122 nationwide, is located on the third floor of the Center for Environmental Sciences and Technology Management on the Nanotech campus. It is staffed around the clock, with at least two people on duty at all times.

They are constantly monitoring satellite imagery and real-time data from 11 Doppler radar towers -- including the recently-repaired tower at John Boyd Thacher State Park -- for any sign of severe weather, meteorologist Neil Stuart said.

"Seconds count because seconds mean lives saved," Stuart said. "Once we know whether the threat is there, it's a very nice and quick process to get those warnings out so we can warn the people as quickly as we can."

Once a meteorologist determines the need for a severe weather alert, he or she clicks the WarnGen button on the computer screen. While viewing the radar, the meteorologist then clicks on the relevant part of the storm. The software calculates its projected path for the next hour.

A few clicks later, the system generates the text of the alert. Another computer converts the text to the voice, adds Emergency Alert System (EAS) coding, and transmits the alert to NOAA Weather Radio and the Capital Region broadcast media.

At NewsChannel 13, the alerts appear as a crawl on the bottom of your television screen. A watch indicates the potential for severe weather. A warning signifies it is imminent or already happening.

In NWS jargon, severe weather threats that last fewer than six hours -- flash floods, thunderstorms, and tornadoes, for instance -- are referred to as "short fuse products." Extended threats such as winter storms are called "long fuse products."

Prior to 1999, NWS meteorologists manually issued alerts by clicking buttons on a console and reading the messages into a microphone, IT officer and meteorologist Vasil Koleci said.

"It actually took a little while to get the warning out on the air, as opposed to the computer (which) can get it out in less than a minute," Koleci said. "So we're actually helping save lives and property using this automated system."

While technology has improved and quickened the process, older methods are still trusted too. Meteorologists continue to use weather balloons to gather routine data. During severe weather events, volunteers use an old-fashioned ham radio to compile damage reports and precipitation totals.

The high-tech software hasn’t replaced the people, either. It still takes a human to send a severe weather alert.

"Human beings can still analyze those things better than computers can," Stuart said. "The computers are there to help us and guide us too, but once we see the storm has reached a certain level, we're right on it and we issue the warning and get it out to the people."