SR SSD 2002-08
FORT WORTH - A glowing, green blob lurches across the map, swiftly consuming one city after another. Like a science-fiction visitor, the alien-looking creature is on a mission of destruction. Jesse Moore, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth, must decide whether to issue a warning about the computer-generated storm the blob represents. He does, and the training simulation ends.
"It's a whole new level of stress," said Moore, who trained on a seven-hour simulation of a 1998 tornado in Alabama. "Until you live an event, you don't see how it really works. It was just like real life." The new $4,500 Weather Event Simulator helps meteorologists learn how to recognize the early signs of severe storms, floods and other disasters.
With spring starting today, and bad weather season in full swing through May, that training will most likely be used more than once. In North Texas, there can be severe weather events including tornadoes, flash floods, hail and just about everything in between, meteorologists said. When dealing with hazardous weather, minutes can make the difference between the loss of property or even of lives, weather officials said. Meteorologists must be trained to make quick and precise determinations, said Bill Bunting, chief forecaster in Fort Worth. "Success is not going to be determined by technology, but by how well we use it and how people use technology to make decisions," he said. "We want them to walk away from the training with sweaty palms. In real life it is going to be a stressful situation, and they have to know how to react."
The simulator can record actual weather events for future playback or be programmed with data from past storms. The simulator, which uses two computers to present 10 blocks of information, is similar to the ones used by pilots, said Mike Foster, who helped develop the program during his stint as meteorologist in charge of science and operations in Fort Worth.
"You don't use simulators to teach people to fly. You use them to expose people who know how to fly to extraordinary experiences, so they can learn to react under pressure," said Foster, now the chief forecaster in Norman, Oklahoma. Severe weather and other major weather encounters are "analogous to an in-flight emergency."
Information such as Doppler radar and satellite images is entered into the computer and comes across the screens in real-time. Problems, such as a satellite losing the picture, are created for added realism. "You can learn without affecting people's ability to prepare for the storm," Bunting said. Before the simulator was installed in January, the 12 forecasters at the Weather Forecast Center in Fort Worth had no way to obtain real-time training unless they worked a storm. Now, simulator training is mandatory. Eventually, officials hope to compile data from the big events of the past, such as the March 2000 tornado in Fort Worth.
Foster pushed for purchase of the simulator after seeing the technology used at a 1998 conference aimed at improving decision-making skills. But it took several years before enough support could be raised to impress top officials, he said. "I want the next generation of meteorologist to be better than I am," Foster said. "I will be excited if someone can relive what I did and learn from that experience."
* This article appeared in the March 20, 2002 issue of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.