In a severe-weather situation, reliable access to up-to-the-minute meteorological information is not just a matter of convenience, but one of life and death. However, due to the chaotic and complicated nature of weather, providing this access and ensuring the proper interpretation of it often proves to be extremely difficult. In Oklahoma, which is subjected to some of the most dangerous weather in the country, these difficulties were exacerbated by the realities of its economy and communications infrastructure. Rural areas were particularly at risk, given that information from the National Weather Service (NWS) was prohibitively expensive for many rural counties and major media outlets focused primarily on metropolitan interests. And even when meteorological information was available, emergency managers often lacked the training to be able to respond effectively.
In 1996, as a response to these issues, the Oklahoma Climatological Survey at the University of Oklahoma conceived of OK-FIRST (Oklahoma's First-response Information Resource System using Telecommunications). The goal of OK-FIRST was to acquire climatological information and communicate it reliably and effectively to policy- and decision-makers through the installation of state-wide weather observation stations, the development of an efficient data-dissemination system, and the creation of a meteorological training program for state emergency managers.
OK-First relies on 15 primary radar units and 114 automated observation sites that measure temperature, wind, humidity, and rainfall every 5 minutes. Through a partnership with Unisys, an IT firm, the project team was also able to incorporate data from the NWS Doppler radar network at a low cost. To further ensure that even relatively poor, rural areas would be able to access real-time, county-specific information, administrators worked aggressively to maintain a high level of geographic diversity in program participants, even lending computers out to those counties that could not afford to purchase their own.
The user interface is designed to run off the Internet, and OK-FIRST information is accessible from any computer with an Internet connection, assuring access even if closed-circuit communications fail. The interface is also designed to process complicated meteorological data and present it in the clearest, most intuitive way possible. To ensure proper interpretation of the data, participants in OK-FIRST attend a series of training sessions. These classes emphasize basic computer literacy, the knowledgeable interpretation of weather data, and quick, proactive decision-making. Participants are kept up-to-date on the latest improvements to the system and weather prediction techniques through occasional two-day refresher courses.
OK-FIRST is used in 71 of 77 counties in Oklahoma and in contiguous counties in Arkansas, Texas, and Kansas. Emergency managers and legislators throughout the state have embraced the system whole-heartedly. Managers routinely credit the program with countless lives saved and the State legislature approved a $250,000 permanent budget line item to ensure the continuation of the program. The system has proven to be effective not only in the prevention of injuries and fatalities due to severe weather, but also in the management of public works projects and outdoor events, fire-fighting efforts, and even agricultural production. The user interface itself is so effective in the timely and clear presentation of complicated data from multiple sources that some members of the NWS prefer OK-FIRST's portal to their own; in 1999 Congress requested that the National Weather Service investigate the use of OK-FIRST as a national prototype. The program is also in various stages of replication in a number of other states, including Florida, Texas, Missouri, and California.