School weather data could be instrumental to homeland security

In a nation at war and on high alert for terrorism, schools across the country could help save thousands of people in case of a chemical or biological attack, thanks to their participation in a national weather monitoring network.

The agreement to use school weather stations for national security was announced last August ( Now, schools around the nation are beginning to be certified in the drive for homeland security.

Perched on the schools’ rooftops are weather stations recording wind speed, temperature, and humidity. In case of terrorism, they could provide key information for predicting how and where dangerous substances might spread—information not available from National Weather Service sites used by the government.

Not that the children know about the role their schools might play.

Anthony Gaul, a sixth-grade science teacher at West Middle School in Sioux City, Iowa, said his students are more interested in seeing the school mentioned by TV forecasters or checking the temperature on the internet.

“As far as their grasp of it being used in an emergency, we briefly discussed it,” Gaul said. “We really haven’t focused on that with them, nor do I think we will.”

Most days, the data are used only by the students or local forecasters, but the private company that operates the stations sees a greater purpose—and so does the government.

The 6,000 sites operated by AWS Convergence Technologies Inc. create a monitoring system that would cost the government an estimated $50 million to replicate.

AWS, based in Gaithersburg, Md., has promised to give the government access to the data for free. Vice president John Saaty said the company did so in response to President Bush’s call for private companies to help with homeland security.

Winning a government contract “may take too long,” Saaty said. “Our CEO said, ‘We’re going to step up to the plate because this is something that can save lives and property.'”

The government already has access to National Weather Service data to map and forecast air movement for emergency managers choosing evacuation routes. But weather service stations typically are posted at airports, and they can’t provide accurate information about what might have happened miles away. The school-based monitors could fill in the gap.

The weather service spent days setting up a network of stations around the World Trade Center site to collect wind data and predict the spread of smoke and dust. There were more than 40 AWS stations near ground zero, but they weren’t used because the company did not yet have the sharing arrangement with the government.

The $7,000 weather station at Willow Springs Elementary School in North Carolina, installed three years ago, is one of the first to be certified under the partnership. Its computer sits on a table next to a caged iguana in the library, yet data it provides could be invaluable in case of an attack.

Willow Springs is just 10 miles south of Raleigh and 45 miles north of Fort Bragg, one of the nation’s largest Army posts.

“We need to know which way the wind’s going. I need to know how fast, how quickly, and I need to know right now,” said Chris Kozlow, a counterterrorism and emergency management expert based in Arlington, Va., who helped manage rescue efforts near the trade center after Sept. 11.

Iowa has five certified stations, the most of any state, and hundreds more are being evaluated for their ability to meet the same standards imposed upon the National Weather Service’s 1,000 automated stations.

Dave Dorenkamp, principal at Okoboji Middle School in northwest Iowa, said he wouldn’t want his students to know weather data from their school could be useful for tracking a chemical attack.

“I think it’s important,” he said, “but I guess the fact that we are that site, to me could be a little alarming to a 10- or 11-year-old.”

Sister Ann Therese, principal at Assumption Academy in Emerson, N.J., is more interested in classroom applications. The weather stations come with interactive, weather-related lessons in science and math.

But she said parents and staff of the 300-student school also feel more secure knowing they can get detailed information about their neighborhood if anything does goes wrong.

“It will tell them if there’s anything in the area that doesn’t belong,” she said. “Now we know if there’s something in the air there. That’s a good feeling.”


AWS Convergence Technologies

National Weather Service

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