The Wi-Fi Tornado Trackers

By Naomi Graychase

July 08, 2005

Texans are using donated, open-source wireless equipment with video feeds as an early warning system.

Even the weather is big in Texas. From lightning strikes to hurricanes, Texans are subject to life-threatening weather all year round. While the Gulf Coast is prone to flooding from hurricanes in the fall, the Panhandle is subject to dramatic snowfalls during the winter, and the north central part of the state spawns large numbers of tornadoes in the spring. In fact, Texas has recorded more tornadoes than any other state in the union. Between 1959 and 2000, 6,417 funnel clouds reached the ground there. In 1967, Texas set its all-time records for most tornadoes in a year (232); most in a single month (124); and the most in a single day (67). Death tolls for a tornado can be devastating—the deadliest tornado in American history killed 695 people in three states (none of which was Texas) in 1925.

Among the most vital tools any community can use to diminish the injuries and deaths resulting from tornadoes are early storm warnings. In order for the National Weather Service to issue a warning, two people must sight the tornado. The delay between the first and second spotter can cost valuable minutes and miles of damage. Currently, ham radio operators and other volunteers make up the bulk of storm watchers in Texas. But now, thanks to local ISP Star~Net Online Systems, the nearly 50,000 residents of Lamar County in eastern Texas have a new weapon in their arsenal: wireless mesh.

Larry Rhea, CEO of the Paris, Texas-based Star~Net, has donated all of the equipment and man hours necessary to get the new network up and running. His own tornado experiences primed him for a quick affirmative response when approached about the project by Star~Net employee Leo Salas, who is also the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) Emergency Coordinator for Lamar County.

“I just think it’s a good community project,” says Rhea. “Back in ’82, Paris was hit by a pretty good storm. A tornado went down by my mom and dad’s house; it tore my car up. That got me interested in wanting to get warnings out to the people sooner. Leo and I just got talking and we said, ‘Hey look what we could do.’”

In February, members of the Lamar County Amateur Radio Emergency Service (LCARES) field-tested the system, which uses wireless mesh equipment to provide voice, video, and data so that spotters can communicate more quickly with the National Weather Service, as well as with first-responders like fire departments and paramedics.

“The main concept,” says Rhea, “is that the storm spotters will be equipped with a Web cam that will send images back to the command center. You have to have two spotters spot a tornado to verify before they can sound the alarm. One of the main advantages to this new system is that the spotter on location with the Web cam can show the funnel cloud, and the second spotter can be the person back at the command center, so they can sound the alarm immediately without waiting for another person in the field to verify the storm.”

Star~Net, a small company that employs about a dozen people locally, uses open-source LocustWorld Meshboxes to provide wireless Internet access to residents in Northeast Texas and Southeast Oklahoma who do not live in areas served by cable Internet access providers. The company was founded in 1994, and began offering wireless in 1999.

The main meshbox is deployed on top of the local hospital, Paris Regional Medical Center, and has a range of four to five miles. In addition to the hospital tower, Rhea made the Star~Net boxes already in place in eastern and northern Lamar County accessible to the spotters.

“With the LocustWorld mesh,” says Rhea, “in an area that can’t get coverage, if it has line of sight back to the hospital where the box is located, then the secondary access point becomes a repeater, so the people on that part of town can use the repeater. We can put up to four boxes on these, so we could actually cover an area that doesn’t have line of sight back to the main tower.”

Storm spotters who connect to the network can also monitor the progress of severe storms as they approach Lamar County by accessing the National Weather Service's radar wirelessly over the Internet. Voice and instant-messaging communication are also available over the network.

The wireless storm watch system is not fully in effect yet, but Rhea is hoping to have it up and running and fully manned by August. So far, the system hasn’t been called into action under true storm conditions—no funnel clouds have touched down in the area since it was deployed—but its creators believe it could shave valuable minutes off future emergency alerts, potentially saving lives.

Originally published on .

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