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Volume 32, Issue 1

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No one in Syracuse and Central New York will forget the powerful storm that swept through the region on the morning of Labor Day, 1998. In less than 20 minutes the storm left in its wake thousands of customers without electric service, hundreds of homes damaged and destroyed and a tragic loss of life for two workers at the New York State Fairgrounds.

Like many other essential service providers, Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation, the local utility, relied on the National Weather Service's NEXRAD system to track storms as they moved through the region.

NEXRAD provides an accurate but limited picture of approaching weather. The system depends on three Doppler radar units located in Binghamton, Buffalo and on the Tug Hill Plateau east of Lake Ontario. Syracuse is on the fringe of each of the Doppler ranges. Because radar beams travel in a straight line and the earth is curved, at distances of more than 150 miles the radar image is less meaningful especially when looking for 'street level' information. Additionally, NEXRAD data delivered to users must first be routed through a third-party data provider before it is delivered. This step takes from seven to 15 minutes. The data displayed, therefore, is not real-time data but a picture of events that have already taken place.

Under normal or near normal circumstances this delay would not be troublesome. But the fast-moving Labor Day Storm of 1998 ripped through the entire Central New York region in about 20 minutes. That is why, when a fast-moving storm is approaching, Niagara Mohawk's operations managers say there are significant advantages to having real time radar data.

'Having access to live radar that is accurate to the street level will help us improve service to customers by making it possible to more accurately assess conditions and better plan power-restoration efforts before and after storms,' says Niagara Mohawk Senior Vice President Edward Dienst. 'Live weather data will also make it safer for our crews in the field, because we'll be able to provide them with information about approaching severe weather.'

While Niagara Mohawk saw advantages in acquiring its own Doppler radar, the utility could not justify the considerable cost associated with purchase, installation and ongoing maintenance of the system.

'We're not in the weather reporting business, and the capital costs of acquiring a real time Doppler radar of our own just could not be justified,' says David Devendorf, Niagara Mohawk's director of research and development. 'That is why we were very interested when NewsChannel 9--a local television station-- approached us with a proposal to partner with them in construction of a state-of-the-art Doppler radar.'

He says the television station had previously shown an interest in Niagara Mohawk's lightning location and detection research efforts-acquiring the rights to broadcast lightning information supplied by the company.

'We entered into discussions with NewsChannel 9 and once the details of the financial agreement were completed we decided that both organizations would share the Doppler radar data with local emergency management agencies, public service providers, government entities and school districts through a password-protected Internet site, ' says Marilyn Higgins, Executive Director of Economic Development and Marketing for Niagara Mohawk.

'Niagara Mohawk and NewsChannel 9 share a strong sense of community pride and responsibility,' says Channel 9 Senior Vice President Steve Kimatian. 'Given the 1998 Labor Day storm, two devastating regional ice storms in the 1990's, and our usual severe winter snowstorms, we believe there is no better way we can help protect our community than by providing the very best Doppler radar system possible.'

'Niagara Mohawk LiveDoppler 9' radar is unique to Central New York.

The transmitter power is 250 kW, the highest civilian power level available. It is also the highest power commercial radar in Central New York. Radar scans take one minute per revolution and displays are in real time as the radar rotates. The Doppler radar also has the capability of measuring rain and snow reflectivity, wind velocity and turbulence, integrated liquid in clouds and precipitation storm totals. It can measure severe high winds up to 150 miles away and precipitation at a maximum range of 320 miles. Due to its one-degree beam angle the Niagara Mohawk LiveDoppler 9 radar can 'see' and track lake effect snow events throughout Central New York-a frequent occurrence during the winter.

Lake effect snowstorms are invisible to NEXRAD because of its distance from the Syracuse area and high beam angle. Most other local commercial radars do not see Lake effect events because of their wider beam width and lower power transmitters.

'We recognized that the Niagara Mohawk Live Doppler 9 data, available no where else, would be very useful to public safety agencies in the Syracuse area. After the installation and testing period, Niagara Mohawk and NewsChannel 9 made it available at no cost to public safety agencies in Onondaga County and city of Syracuse.' Higgins says. 'We also made this data available to the management of the New York State Fairgrounds. In addition to the annual New York State Fair, the fairgrounds are used year-round for many events, and access to the Doppler radar data would also help them improve public safety.'

The Doppler radar data is delivered to internal users at Niagara Mohawk through the company's Intranet. Low-resolution images are delivered to members of the public through NewsChannel 9 web site and Niagara Mohawk Internet site NiagaraMohawk.com. High-resolution images are delivered to participating public service agencies through a password-protected site via the Internet.

'Through sharing of this technology with public safety agencies, everyone in the community benefits through enhanced safety for emergency workers and faster response times when there's a problem. It's a technology that is making Central New York a better place to live through community partnership,' Higgins concludes.

Gerald L. Rockower is a 27-year veteran of the Public Affairs and Corporate Communications staff at the Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation. He is an experienced emergency communicator, and most recently served as the company's liaison to the Franklin County Emergency Operations Center during the January 1998 ice-storm which disrupted electric service in six-counties of northern New York State.