Broward County in Florida — an area which frequently has to adjust its schedules due to weather — has introduced a new severe weather alerting system for public schools, according to By Erica A. Hernandez of Sun Sentinel. The new program will enable Broward County teachers and coaches to detect whether their students are in danger of lightning and storms during activities, and will allow them to the school year with up-to-the minute radar in the palm of their hands.
The effort to improve severe weather detection for public schools was spearheaded by Broward County School Board Director of Safety Jerry Graziose. The program was started in 2006, a year after a Monarch High School student was killed by a lightning strike in Coconut Creek.
The original program was initiated to protect against lightning, an issue that touches Florida more than any other state. Since 2005, six deaths caused by lightning strikes have been reported in Broward County, two in Palm Beach County and 34 in the state, according to the National Climate Data Center.
Palm Beach County high schools use lightning detectors distributed from the Department of Risk Management. Yetta Greene, Palm Beach County high school athletics administrator, said that coaches use their cellphones in conjunction with the hand-held lightning detectors to make more informed decisions about waiting out the storm or canceling an event.
Under the new program, physical education teachers, band leaders, athletic directors and ROTC leaders will receive an AT&T Samsung Galaxy Rugby Pro already loaded with a county-specific version of the WeatherBug application. Graziose worked with WeatherBug to add much-needed features to the app.
Frank McCathran, director of education and school safety at WeatherBug, said that the county's old system struggled with detection accuracy and was limited by the technology available at the time. The Sprint phones could only track lightning and heat index, were slow to update and had virtually no graphics.
McCathran noted that the most important feature of the new device is radar and real-time updates. "It gives them visual intelligence."
According to Graziose, the upgrade will not cost Broward County any extra taxpayer dollars. However, the county will still pay a yearly fee of $102,000 for WeatherBug services and a monthly fee of $12,000 to AT&T for the data usage and emergency calling plan. There was no cost to change the phones.
The protocol for use of the new tracking device is simple. The person who is supervising a group of students outdoors will carry the WeatherBug phone, and if severe weather approaches within 15 miles of their location, they will receive an alert.
The alert will contain instructions about whether it is safe to continue to be outdoors. A second alert will be issued once the area is cleared of severe weather of any kind.
To encourage school-to-school communication, the new phones allow text messaging from one WeatherBug phone to another. Users can use the WeatherBug application on the phone and make emergency calls to 911.