Abstract

Since 1997, the Oklahoma Mesonet (the state’s automated mesoscale weather station network) has served a community of more than 1,400 public safety officials (emergency managers, fire officials, law enforcement, etc.) across Oklahoma through a weather data and training program called Oklahoma’s First-Response Information Resource System using Telecommunications (OK-First). OK-First provides free weather and radar data interpretation classes to eligible public safety officials and, following successful completion of training, password-protected access to weather data tools including a website and software. The objective of OK-First when it began was to fill significant gaps in weather product training and data access for Oklahoma’s public safety community. Though the core mission remains the same 20 years later, many aspects of OK-First have evolved over time, including participant membership, training curriculum, formats of training, training requirements, website and software technology, and program feedback. The purpose of this paper is to provide an update on the Mesonet’s OK-First program, with a particular focus on training, tools, and the impact it has had on the public safety community.

Weather education and data delivery to the public safety community have been the hallmark of the OK-First program for the past 20 years

Oklahoma is no stranger to life-threatening weather conditions. A review of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) presidential disaster declarations (1953–2017) reveals that Oklahoma is ranked first in disaster declarations categorized as “severe storms” and currently has the third-most disaster declarations of any state (FEMA 2017). This history of disasters proved instrumental in the conceptualization of an automated meteorological surface observation network capable of monitoring Oklahoma’s rapidly changing weather conditions. The concept was that through the development of a network providing near-real-time surface data across the state, a variety of users would be armed with high-quality weather information to support critical decision-making during hazardous weather events.

Commissioned on 1 January 1994, the Oklahoma Mesonet (Brock et al. 1995; McPherson et al. 2007) is the state’s automated surface observation network. The Oklahoma Mesonet (referred to as Mesonet) monitors a variety of surface weather conditions including air temperature, relative humidity, air pressure, wind speed, wind direction, rainfall, and solar radiation at 5-min intervals as well as subsurface conditions including soil temperature at 15-min intervals and soil moisture at 30-min intervals. With a total of 120 stations, Mesonet sites are located in all of Oklahoma’s 77 counties at an average station spacing of 29 km.

Mesonet data have been shown to benefit a wide range of sectors spanning agriculture, drought monitoring, climate monitoring, public safety, wildland fire management, short-term forecasting, state and federal agencies, residential and public users, energy users, K–12 education, and research applications (Ziolkowska et al. 2017). In the case of several of these sectors, dedicated outreach programs were developed by Mesonet staff with the intent of providing relevant Mesonet data products and tools, education, and expertise to address needs of different user groups, including K–12 education (McPherson and Crawford 1996), public safety (Morris et al. 2001), agriculture (Klockow et al. 2010), and wildland fire management (Carlson and Bidwell 2008). While the data and tools provided through the Mesonet’s four dedicated outreach programs have produced a variety of benefits to different users over the years, nowhere else has it proven to be so crucial to life-or-death decision-making as it is has been to its public safety outreach program [referred to as Oklahoma’s First-Response Information Resource System using Telecommunications (OK-First)].

The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of the Mesonet’s OK-First program. With the program recently reaching its twentieth anniversary, this paper serves as an update to past publications on OK-First (Morris et al. 2001, 2002) and will highlight the evolution of the program. Specific focus will be given to program history, participant training, data access technology, and program impact.

HISTORY.

With the commissioning of the Mesonet in 1994, an abundance of meteorological information became available in Oklahoma. The data had immense value in monitoring hazardous weather events; however, the mere presence of Mesonet data alone did not address recurrent deficiencies documented in several National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) service assessments from flooding (NOAA 1977, 1991), heat (Changnon et al. 1996), and tornado events (NOAA 1994). The assessments found that a lack of weather data dissemination systems rendered the issuance of National Weather Service (NWS) forecast and warning information useless since public safety officials were unable to receive the information in a timely manner. Based on these previous events, scientists at the Oklahoma Mesonet recognized that without modern computing technology and a dedicated information dissemination system, public safety officials would not be able to receive the wealth of data now being collected by the Mesonet. There was a distinct need to pair Mesonet data with an information system that would benefit these critical public safety users—the OK-First program was the answer to that need.

OK-First began in 1996 as a U.S. Department of Commerce telecommunications infrastructure grant. The concept of OK-First was simple but empowering—to provide eligible public safety officials with 1) a means for receiving information (e.g., a computer and Internet connection), 2) free password-protected access to meteorological data, and 3) basic meteorological training to help in the interpretation of a variety of weather and radar products. With Mesonet, radar, and NWS data as the backbone of the system, OK-First was created to provide public safety officials with information that was previously unavailable to them for a variety of reasons (e.g., lack of computer, prohibitive cost of radar data). The training component of the program was unique since weather and radar data interpretation classes for nonmeteorologists were essentially nonexistent at the time, with the exception of NWS storm spotter training (Doswell et al. 1999). Following the development of a data website and training content, participant recruitment, and a competitive application process, OK-First classes began in the summer of 1997.

PARTICIPANT TRAINING.

Scientific information by its very nature is inherently complex yet powerful—this is particularly true for meteorological information. For this reason, staff at the Mesonet determined from the onset of OK-First that comprehensive training would be a fundamental element of the program to provide program participants with a thorough introductory education in meteorology, data interpretation, and technology for viewing data. This section will cover a variety of topics relating to OK-First training and its evolution over the last two decades, including program participation, classes, the importance of feedback, training changes, and class attendance.

Program participation.

Prospective OK-First participants must meet several eligibility requirements (e.g., be in a public safety–related position) and agree to program rules specified in the program participant agreement (www.mesonet.org/index.php/okfirst/participant_agreement) before being permitted to enroll in classes. While emergency managers, fire officials, and law enforcement were the initial target audience of the program, interest has spread to other weather-impacted decision-makers. Over the last 10 years, the list of participating groups has grown and diversified and now includes tribal officials, city and county leadership, health officials, school officials, military officials, voluntary organizations active in disasters, and state and federal agencies.

Classes.

Training has been the bedrock of the OK-First program since the program’s inception and is a required element to gain password-protected access to the tools provided by the program. Training is initially provided through an intensive multiday certification class, which over the years has evolved in content and duration. During the 1997/98 period of the program, the certification class had a threefold purpose: 1) to introduce officials to modern computing technology, 2) to train them on important meteorological concepts, and 3) to close the data gap between the NWS and public safety community. The first portion of the class was devoted to technology training (e.g., how to use a computer, mouse, the Internet) and for a number of participants was their first exposure to computers and using the Internet. This computer training was limited to the first three classes (1997/98) and largely served to train attendees who were selected to receive a brand new computer as part of the training. The final five days of the class were devoted to meteorological training and were accomplished via a combination of presentations on a variety of topics (e.g., Mesonet data, radar data, basic meteorology, terminology) and computer-based laboratory exercises that emphasized data and product interpretation using OK-First tools. Laboratory exercises focused on a variety of weather event types (e.g., severe storms, winter weather, fire) and could include anything from locating a dryline on a surface map to identifying possible winter precipitation types based on radar reflectivity appearance and Mesonet data. Instructors for the classes included meteorologists from the Mesonet as well as the Norman and Tulsa, Oklahoma (OK), NWS offices. The involvement of NWS staff in the classes (Figs. 1b,f) was particularly crucial as it further legitimized OK-First training, facilitated relationship building between public safety officials and the NWS, and allowed NWS staff to see what meteorological data public safety officials were now able to access through OK-First.

Fig. 1.

Photographs from OK-First classes at a variety of locations over the years, including (a) Sarkeys Energy Center at the University of Oklahoma (OU) in 1999, (b) the Warning Decision Training Branch in 2006, (c) the Moore Public Safety Center in 2014, (d),(e) the Radar Innovations Laboratory at OU in 2016, and (f) the National Weather Center at OU in 2017.

Fig. 1.

Photographs from OK-First classes at a variety of locations over the years, including (a) Sarkeys Energy Center at the University of Oklahoma (OU) in 1999, (b) the Warning Decision Training Branch in 2006, (c) the Moore Public Safety Center in 2014, (d),(e) the Radar Innovations Laboratory at OU in 2016, and (f) the National Weather Center at OU in 2017.

Because the concepts covered in OK-First certification were complex while the technology and science continued to advance, Mesonet staff implemented a training model that avoided a “one and done” approach. The concept was simple: certified OK-First participants were required to attend routine recertification classes at least once every 18 months to maintain certification and data access. OK-First recertification classes began in 1998, were two days in length, and consisted of a review of many of the meteorological concepts covered in the certification class as well as new laboratory exercises. The premise behind the continual training approach was similar to that of recurring weapons training for officers—routine time “at the range” is needed to maintain skills. This learn-through-repetition approach has proven to be very successful, if not crucial, as it has provided an avenue for updating the community of users as software/tools change, new datasets become available, and new topics are introduced in classes. Because of user feedback, recertification classes were shortened to one day beginning in the fall of 2004.

While the certification and recertification classes formed the initial training offerings of OK-First, substantial class feedback during the first several years of the program identified a distinct need for an additional class type. Many of the initial participants to OK-First certification were city or county emergency management directors who relied on additional staff and volunteers, particularly during active weather situations. A common request was the need for a radar interpretation class specifically for assistants and volunteers that supported emergency management operations. Since many assistants are either unpaid or only part time, taking five days off to attend the certification class was not an option. To meet the expressed demand, Mesonet staff developed the OK-First assistant certification class and held the first one in spring 2000. The 2-day class focused exclusively on radar and the severe storm portions of the certification class. To be eligible for the assistant certification class, participants were required to be approved by (and assistants to) an active, certified OK-First participant. Assistant certified participants initially were not required to take any additional OK-First training; however, following participant feedback and a program rule change in 2015, these participants are now required to attend recertification training no less than once every 24 months.

The importance of feedback.

The single-most critical element responsible for the success and longevity of OK-First has been the user-driven design of the program. Mesonet staff understood that to best serve the community meant to continually listen to user feedback and implement suggestions as feasible. This “feedback first” approach has influenced all aspects of the program, especially its training. This has been done informally in classroom settings through class discussions as well as more formally via postclass and periodic postseason evaluations. The variety of approaches has yielded invaluable feedback on topics users wanted to learn more about, elements of classes that were valuable or needed adjustment, preferred instructional methods, and technical suggestions on OK-First websites and software.

To augment feedback provided at classes and provide an opportunity for more in-depth discussions, Mesonet staff established a 15-member OK-First Advisory Committee in 2011. Composed of active OK-First participants (no fewer than 10) representing a variety of different roles (city, county, state, tribal, K–12, university, regional, and federal) as well as relevant partners (e.g., NWS and FEMA), the committee gathers annually for a 1-day meeting to provide feedback on a variety of topics spanning training, recruitment, technology, program policies, and other topics. With the exception of the committee seats for non-OK-First participants (e.g., NWS and FEMA), committee membership is limited to three years, which allows for new voices and perspectives on the committee over time.

Training changes.

With the collection of feedback mechanisms in place (i.e., the OK-First Advisory Committee, in-class discussions, and postclass evaluations), Mesonet staff receive a steady stream of ideas to improve the program. Over the past five years, suggestions have been made on a variety of training elements including increasing the educational standard and rigor of the program, expanding to new methods of training delivery, classroom improvements, and class content.

Program rigor was increased through the implementation of a testing component at the certification and assistant certification classes beginning in spring 2014. All new participants to OK-First training are required to score a 70% or higher on a comprehensive end-of-class test to receive their certification. Each student is allowed up to one retake as needed before being required to take the class again. Also relating to the increased educational standard, required web-based prerequisites were added to both the certification and assistant certification classes in spring 2016. The 2.5 h of prerequisites include a class pretest as well as introductory presentations on meteorology and meteorological measurements, which previously were covered in class. Establishing these prerequisites has allowed for more interactive sessions during class and has also resulted in fewer nonattendees to training as enrollees are more vested given they have completed a portion of the content beforehand.

OK-First participants have had access to a variety of meteorological reference materials on a password-protected web page since the late 1990s; however, users began expressing a greater interest in online classes in the 2010–11 time frame. To address the increased demand for online recertification training, Mesonet staff integrated an open-source learning management system (Dokeos; www.dokeos.com) into a newly redesigned OK-First web page in early 2014. The first online OK-First recertification class was offered in spring 2014 and was conducted in a weeklong, asynchronous format. The format and design were well received and remain the same today, with 392 students successfully completing 19 online recertification classes through 2017. Traditional in-person recertification classes are still offered and well attended, but for those participants who have difficult work schedules or prefer a self-paced class, the online recertification classes have been a valuable addition. Additional requests for offering the certification and assistant certification classes in an online format have been made as well; however, to date, these classes remain exclusively in the in-person format because of the importance of relationship building between public safety officials and the Mesonet, NWS, and media.

In terms of classroom improvements, Mesonet staff have implemented several changes over the last few years to modernize the educational experience of its classes. Beginning in fall 2013, Mesonet staff began experimenting with student response devices as a tool for reviewing concepts during presentations. The devices were an immediate hit and were quickly integrated into all class presentations. In addition to helping students anonymously assess their understanding of different topics, the system provides immediate feedback to instructors on the effectiveness of their teaching. In fall 2016, in an effort to modernize the delivery of class materials at in-person classes, Mesonet staff began providing class materials exclusively in a digital format (e.g., single PDF file with simple bookmarked navigation) with distribution occurring in advance of class. This replaced a long-standing method of providing class materials in both print (hundreds of pages) and a series of electronic presentation files, which were provided upon arrival at the class. Student feedback on the new digital-only format was overwhelmingly positive and has helped to reduce program costs.

Though the core focus of OK-First training has remained radar and Mesonet data-centric throughout the 20-yr history of the program, class materials and content have slowly evolved over the years. Training materials are routinely modified to update graphics; include new technologies (e.g., dual-polarization radar), new products (e.g., Mesonet wet-bulb globe temperature), and new tools (e.g., updated website); and incorporate new laboratory exercises. Current meteorological topics covered in OK-First classes (Table 1) include all relevant hazards for Oklahoma and also comprise topics that users have specifically requested (e.g., lightning).

Table 1.

Instructional topics and activities for each OK-First class as of 2017.

Instructional topics and activities for each OK-First class as of 2017.
Instructional topics and activities for each OK-First class as of 2017.

In spring 2015, an experimental NWS and media panel discussion was added to the certification class to facilitate a conversation between the public safety officials and their counterparts in the integrated warning team (Doswell et al. 1999). Composed of four broadcast meteorologists from different media markets and two NWS meteorologists from different offices (Fig. 1e), the question-and-answer-style panel discussion provided a forum for discussing a variety of topics that the public safety officials initiated. Some of the topics discussed included message consistency, media “event hyping,” and methods for improving communications. The session was so popular that it immediately became a permanent addition to the certification class curriculum.

Class attendance.

Over the last two decades, Mesonet staff have trained more than 1,400 public safety officials at a total of 42 certification and 58 assistant certification classes. Following initial certification, OK-First participants have subsequently attended a total of 186 recertification classes with a total class attendance of 2,951. In total, OK-First classes from 1997 to 2017 amassed a total attendance of 4,579 people taught at 49 different locations across Oklahoma.

In terms of changes in training numbers over time, annual class totals have increased steadily, as evident in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2.

The 1997–2017 OK-First annual (a) training totals of all classes combined (certification, assistant certification, recertification, and online recertification) and online training (recertification only) and (b) training totals by class type.

Fig. 2.

The 1997–2017 OK-First annual (a) training totals of all classes combined (certification, assistant certification, recertification, and online recertification) and online training (recertification only) and (b) training totals by class type.

Factors influencing the increase in annual training numbers include 1) the addition of the assistant certification class in 2000, 2) increased program visibility over time through the Mesonet’s attendance at the annual Oklahoma Emergency Management Association (OEMA) Conference and the annual Inter-Tribal Emergency Management Coalition Summit, 3) inception of the OK-First Advisory Committee in 2011, 4) addition of online recertification classes in 2014, 5) a program rule change requiring assistant certified participants to attend recertification classes no less than once every 24 months beginning in 2015, and 6) members referring others to the program.

DATA ACCESS TECHNOLOGY.

While training formed the foundation upon which OK-First was built, technology offered by OK-First has provided the incentive for public safety officials to join and remain in the program. During the early years of the program, OK-First provided many public safety officials with their first introduction to the information age. While new meteorological datasets were becoming available during the mid-1990s, meager budgets and high subscription costs for some datasets (e.g., radar data) made it impossible for most public safety officials to access meteorological information. OK-First was the answer to the cost-prohibitive nature of accessing meteorological data, which the program achieved through providing select participants with a free computer (1997–98 only) and a free weather web page for viewing a variety of datasets (1997–current). In this section, a summary of OK-First’s data access technology will be provided.

OK-First weather data web page.

The initial OK-First weather data web page (launched in 1997) was a cutting-edge weather data portal that provided users with access to radar data, Mesonet data, NWS products, and other products. A subset of products on the page—namely, radar and Mesonet data—were available as powerful interactive maps. Through the incorporation of a special Mesonet-developed web browser plug-in called WxScope, these interactive maps (1997; Fig. 3) could be zoomed, panned, and animated, thus providing users with an ability to tailor the maps to their needs. The dissemination technology was innovative in that raw radar and Mesonet text data files were transmitted to the user and subsequently visualized on the client’s machine. This allowed significant amounts of data to be transferred via the web without the overhead of large postprocessed files (e.g., image and animation files).

Fig. 3.

Original OK-First current data web page from 1997 displaying interactive maps from (a) the radar section and (b) the Mesonet section.

Fig. 3.

Original OK-First current data web page from 1997 displaying interactive maps from (a) the radar section and (b) the Mesonet section.

Participant feedback was solicited at every OK-First class and led to several major improvements to the page. One of the first updates to the page was the introduction of user-customized preferences in 1998, which allowed participants to customize their interactive maps to display or hide different geographic layers in their plug-in-enabled maps (e.g., county borders, different road types, rivers, Mesonet site locations). All of these settings were saved and applied for future use of the page. Users also expressed an interest in having an option between a one- and two-screen mode to display data on the website. This capability was added in 1998 and provided users with control over what would be displayed in the two screens (e.g., radar, Mesonet, NWS, or other data). Another user-inspired update occurred in 1999 and featured a new way of organizing data on the page into six different threat types—thunderstorms and tornadoes, flooding, tropical cyclones, ice and snow, heat and drought, and fires (e.g., Fig. 4 in Morris et al. 2001)—as well as dividing the data into subsections based on their utility before, during, and after events. This greatly assisted users in navigating to the most appropriate maps given the weather situation and began a transition from a pure information-support system to a decision-support system. Around this time, interpretation aids were also integrated alongside the threat and data products to provide educational opportunities for users viewing the data. Subsequent minor updates to the page were made in the early 2000s including an enhanced briefing mode that allowed users to customize the zone forecast location, display data from a specific Mesonet site, and receive alerts for a location of their choice (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4.

Early 2000s OK-First enhanced briefing web page featuring (red banner across the top) customizable alerts, (top left) interactive radar reflectivity mosaic with NWS watches and warnings, (top middle) data from a user-defined Mesonet site, (middle left) interactive regional wind chill map, (bottom left) NWS Storm Prediction Center Day 1 Convective Outlook, and (bottom right) NWS Zone Forecast for a user-defined county.

Fig. 4.

Early 2000s OK-First enhanced briefing web page featuring (red banner across the top) customizable alerts, (top left) interactive radar reflectivity mosaic with NWS watches and warnings, (top middle) data from a user-defined Mesonet site, (middle left) interactive regional wind chill map, (bottom left) NWS Storm Prediction Center Day 1 Convective Outlook, and (bottom right) NWS Zone Forecast for a user-defined county.

A significant update to the OK-First weather data web page was completed and released to users in 2007. The change brought about a major redesign to the page, which featured 1) a hazards-based menu system, 2) full integration with the Mesonet’s WeatherScope software (McPherson et al. 2007) as a plug-in for all interactive map products, 3) an ability to view data full screen, 4) an alerting function for up to seven user-specified counties, and 5) a capability for user-built WeatherScope maps that could be uploaded to the page. In addition, the page had a new four-screen mode that served as the initial data view when logging in to the page (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5.

The 2007 redesign of the OK-First current data web page. Displayed products include (top middle) an interactive radar reflectivity mosaic with NWS watches and warnings, (top right) an interactive dewpoint temperature map, (bottom middle) an NWS Storm Prediction Center Day 1 Convective Outlook, and (bottom right) an NWS Zone Forecast for a user-defined county.

Fig. 5.

The 2007 redesign of the OK-First current data web page. Displayed products include (top middle) an interactive radar reflectivity mosaic with NWS watches and warnings, (top right) an interactive dewpoint temperature map, (bottom middle) an NWS Storm Prediction Center Day 1 Convective Outlook, and (bottom right) an NWS Zone Forecast for a user-defined county.

In the years following the 2007 update, rapid growth in mobile web technology created challenges for the future sustainability of the OK-First weather data page. Not only was the page not designed for mobile platforms, but web browser support for plug-in software was decreasing. This posed a major threat to the OK-First website given the page relied heavily upon the WeatherScope plug-in for all interactive mapping. In 2012, the Mesonet team began development of a new OK-First weather data page—a design that for the first time in the history of the page would not rely on Mesonet-developed plug-in software for interactive mapping. Instead, the new design leveraged JavaScript and the growing visualization capabilities of web browsers.

Following several years of development, internal evaluation, and external testing with OK-First participants, the new OK-First Weather Briefing web page was launched in early 2016. The page offers many of the popular features of its predecessors including interactive radar and Mesonet products, customizable user preferences, multiple windows to view data, and a sizable collection of more than 300 products to view. In addition to these familiar features, a number of new features and capabilities were unveiled, as specified in Table 2. The customizable data display allows users to drag and drop products from the menus at the top (e.g., under the WX Hazard, WX Data, and My Products sections) into different windows on the page, thus providing each OK-First participant with a unique display that can be tailored to meet their changing needs depending on the weather situation. Figure 6 displays the OK-First Weather Briefing web page configured to monitor fire weather conditions during the major Anderson Creek fire event on 23 March 2016.

Table 2.

New features and capabilities of the OK-First Weather Briefing web page (launched in 2016).

New features and capabilities of the OK-First Weather Briefing web page (launched in 2016).
New features and capabilities of the OK-First Weather Briefing web page (launched in 2016).
Fig. 6.

The 2016 redesign of the OK-First weather briefing web page viewed during the Anderson Creek fire event on 23 Mar 2016. Products displayed include (top left) an interactive relative humidity, wind, and Dodge City, Kansas, base reflectivity tilt 1 product; (top right) Mesonet Burning Index map; (bottom left) visible satellite image; and (bottom right) fire danger widget with data from the May Ranch Mesonet site in northwestern Oklahoma.

Fig. 6.

The 2016 redesign of the OK-First weather briefing web page viewed during the Anderson Creek fire event on 23 Mar 2016. Products displayed include (top left) an interactive relative humidity, wind, and Dodge City, Kansas, base reflectivity tilt 1 product; (top right) Mesonet Burning Index map; (bottom left) visible satellite image; and (bottom right) fire danger widget with data from the May Ranch Mesonet site in northwestern Oklahoma.

RadarFirst.

Following the 2007 update to the OK-First weather data web page, program participants made requests for a stand-alone software application to view radar data exclusively. While interactive radar data were available in the updated web page, users were interested in a companion tool that was faster and easy to use and did not require a web browser. Software developers at the Mesonet developed a solution that would leverage off of the radar portion of the WeatherScope software code base—a new radar-only software package entitled RadarFirst.

RadarFirst was immediately embraced by the OK-First community following its launch in 2009 and to date is one of the most popular tools that OK-First has provided the public safety community. The initial version provided interactive radar data in a single window that could be zoomed, panned, and animated. Users could switch between radar products (e.g., reflectivity, velocity, radar-estimated rainfall, vertically integrated liquid) and also had an ability to change radar sites. Though this initial version was somewhat limited in its features, the simplicity, speed, and reliability of the software were key in its rapid adoption by the OK-First community.

While RadarFirst was well received initially, participants had and continue to have a wealth of ideas for improving the software with new features that further support their myriad of public safety responsibilities. Between 2009 and 2017, a total of 10 versions of the software have been developed, tested, and released for Windows (9 versions for Mac). Features added through these updates include detailed road data, warning polygons and text, spotter network data, audible alerts for user-set counties, two-screen mode, dual-polarization radar data, archived data mode (used extensively for training scenarios), updated authentication system to handle new individual accounts, touch-screen compliance, improved map navigation controls, multiple instance capability (e.g., the software can be opened multiple times on the same device), keyboard shortcuts, screenshot feature, and lightning data. Several similar radar software options exist today; however, RadarFirst continues to be very popular with the OK-First community as it provides participants with a no-cost and no-subscription solution for viewing real-time radar, advisory, and lightning data as well as past data from a sizable catalogue of saved historical weather events. An example of the software in use during the 16 May 2017 severe weather event in western Oklahoma is shown in Fig. 7.

Fig. 7.

The OK-First RadarFirst software displaying (left) base reflectivity at 0.5° and (right) base velocity at 0.5° from the Frederick, Oklahoma (KFDR), radar at 2359 UTC 16 May 2017. Also shown are severe thunderstorm warning polygons (orange), tornado warning polygons (red), storm-track forecasts (white lines with icons), lightning strike data (white plus and minus icons), and tornado warning text (pop-up window).

Fig. 7.

The OK-First RadarFirst software displaying (left) base reflectivity at 0.5° and (right) base velocity at 0.5° from the Frederick, Oklahoma (KFDR), radar at 2359 UTC 16 May 2017. Also shown are severe thunderstorm warning polygons (orange), tornado warning polygons (red), storm-track forecasts (white lines with icons), lightning strike data (white plus and minus icons), and tornado warning text (pop-up window).

PROGRAM IMPACT.

A formal evaluation of OK-First was completed after the first three years of the program and is summarized in Morris et al. (2001). More recently, an optional short survey (University of Oklahoma Institutional Review Board 8061) was distributed to all current OK-First members during May 2017 to assess program improvement and impact. The survey covered several topics including years of experience, most valuable aspect of the program, most important changes to training, most important changes to technology, and examples of how data and training were used. In this section, results of the 2017 survey as well as statements from several OK-First weather partners will be provided.

2017 OK-First participant survey.

A total of 151 responses (146 complete and 5 partially completed surveys) were recorded out of 618 active members who received the survey, which represents a 24.4% response rate. Survey respondents ranged in OK-First experience from new members to 20-yr participants, with the average survey respondent having 7.66 years of OK-First experience; 115 respondents (77.7% of total) indicated they had received OK-First certification training, while 32 respondents (21.6% of total) received OK-First assistant certification training. Job types of the respondents are shown in Table 3.

Table 3.

2017 OK-First participant survey respondents by job type (n = 148).

2017 OK-First participant survey respondents by job type (n = 148).
2017 OK-First participant survey respondents by job type (n = 148).

When asked what the most valuable component of OK-First was, 39% chose “training,” 37.7% chose “technology,” and 23.3% chose “connections” (with NWS and other public safety agencies). Focusing further on training, participants were asked to identify the most important training improvement during the history of the program: 48.6% chose changing program rules to require all participants (certified and assistant certified) to attend recertification classes, 34.3% chose the addition of online recertification classes, 9.6% chose requiring all new participants to pass an exam to be certified, 4.1% chose adding interactive clicker questions to presentations, and the remaining 3.4% indicated other (commonly “all of the above”).

Survey participants were asked a similar question regarding the most important technology improvement during the history of the program: 47.3% chose the development of RadarFirst, 27.4% chose the provision of weather-related mobile apps (e.g., the Mesonet and RadarScope apps), 14.4% chose development of the new mobile-capable Weather Briefing page, 6.8% chose the switch from shared agency account logins to individual logins, and the remaining 4.1% chose other (commonly “all of the above”). The selection of RadarFirst (which was user requested in 2007) as the top technology improvement reinforces the importance of listening to and being responsive to user needs. The selection of weather-related apps (including RadarScope, which has been purchased and provided to program participants at no cost to them since 2014) as the second-highest technology improvement is also noteworthy. Many of the underlying data dissemination and visualization technologies developed by Mesonet staff for OK-First in the late 1990s to early 2000s later laid the foundation for the widely popular RadarScope application for mobile and Mac devices (M. Wolfinbarger 2017, personal communication); thus, the technological impact of the program extends well beyond the OK-First community.

In the final survey question, participants were given the opportunity to share a weather event example or a statement on the program. A total of 72 survey participants provided open-ended responses. The following list highlights several of the statements:

“The training I received from the OK-First program was critical in the way that I managed the state’s medical response to the [enhanced Fujita 3 (EF3)] tornado that hit El Reno on May 31, 2013. I was able to use the RadarFirst platform along with my training to safely and effectively guide Emergency Medical Service (EMS) resources and responders from various locations across Oklahoma to the areas directly affected by the storms. This meant re-routing EMS units several times to keep them out of the path of severe storms. Additionally, I frequently use OK-First data to keep my partners informed before and during weather events all across Oklahoma” (Darrell Eberly, emergency manager, Oklahoma State Department of Health).

“Due to our location in western Oklahoma we often did not get good coverage from the available news services prior to OK-First. With OK-First and now especially RadarFirst we can storm spot more efficiently and with less personnel in the field in these cases. I believe we now provide much better protection to our city and the other communities downstream from the storms due to the capabilities of OK-First. I would hate to ever have to go back to blindly spotting a storm without the information that is provided by OK-First” (Terry Stone, retired fire chief, Elk City Fire Department).

“On April 26, 2016 and May 9, 2016 severe thunderstorms developed and moved over portions of the city of Oklahoma City. I used my OK-First training, applications, and data to provide decision making support to 911 regarding the activation of the new Oklahoma City outdoor warning siren sectors. The knowledge, skills, and abilities gained from OK-First were invaluable to interpreting the data and analyzing the developing situation. As a result, only one sector was activated on April 26th and only one on May 9th significantly reducing over-warning or false warnings” (Frank Barnes, emergency manager, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma).

“In Grady County, the [emergency management (EM)] office uses volunteer fire departments, municipal police officers, and sheriff’s deputies to provide spotting information for the emergency operations center. I use the OK-First products to advise them on what is going on and what to look for. The OK-First program is an indispensable tool for the emergency management community. We use these tools daily as the Oklahoma weather changes almost daily. We have the weather briefing page up on two screens in our [emergency operations center (EOC)] and county dispatch 24 hours a day. Without the OK-First training and usage our county would be in serious jeopardy to warn responders and the residents of impending severe weather” (Dale Thompson, emergency manager, Grady County Emergency Management).

“The ice storm of January 2010 was a major winter event [that] impacted our city with major damage to electrical distribution infrastructure, which took 12 days to make repairs before any power was restored. Due to OK-First and NWS data, [we were] able to have staff aware of the potential which led to meeting every need of our citizens with shelters, meals, and data for the daily repair crews for their safety during recovery operations” (Jerome McCalvin, fire chief, Marlow Fire Department).

“How can a person single out any one event? It’s EVERY event, including not only the high-end tornado strikes we have suffered, but snow, ice, heat, lightning, rain, drought. The data we receive and the training to properly use it is indispensable. Every day!” (Gayland Kitch, emergency manager, Moore, Oklahoma).

Statements from OK-First weather partners.

Separate from the 2017 survey, NWS and media partners that have participated in OK-First classes also provided their impressions and perspectives on the program. The following are several provided statements:

“Thanks to the intensive training provided through the OK-First program, emergency managers and public safety officials in our area of responsibility are probably some of the most weather-savvy in the country. They understand more of the language of meteorology and radar, and that enhances the communication between the National Weather Service and these local decision makers” (David Andra, meteorologist-in-charge, NWS Weather Forecast Office, Norman, Oklahoma).

“OK-First training gives emergency management and decision makers in Oklahoma a unique opportunity to learn important meteorological and radar topics on a level that is not available in most other states. The understanding of various weather-related topics is increased through this hands-on training, which surely improves the collaboration process between OK-First attendees and the NWS offices that serve Oklahoma” (Ed Calianese, warning coordination meteorologist, NWS Weather Forecast Office, Tulsa, Oklahoma).

“Routine interaction with weather-savvy emergency officials through the OK-First program has helped guide the development of new forecast services and web page content. Feedback from OK-First participants has also helped in gaining a better understanding of how our severe and fire weather outlooks are used in daily planning and decision making within the emergency management community” (Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations, NWS Storm Prediction Center).

“OK-First has a quality severe weather training program for Oklahoma emergency managers. Part of that includes a question and answer session with the media. This allows a connection between the governmental employees and those who report on TV. It is a useful and open dialogue allowing a better understanding of how each entity works. Great program!” (Jed Castles, meteorologist, KWTV News 9, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma).

FINAL THOUGHTS.

Over the past two decades, the Mesonet has successfully engaged, educated, and empowered more than 1,400 public safety officials across Oklahoma through its award-winning OK-First program (see sidebar for OK-First/Mesonet awards). This has been accomplished by providing high-quality weather data tools, routine classes, and continual follow-up support to its trained members. While the model of pairing data with training remains the same 20 years later, many of the details of the program have evolved over time, as documented in Table 4. It is important to emphasize that a majority of the changes to the program over its history have been user driven and provided through a variety of feedback mechanisms including class discussions, class evaluations, and the OK-First Advisory Committee.

Table 4.

A comparison between different aspects of the OK-First program in 1997 and 2017.

A comparison between different aspects of the OK-First program in 1997 and 2017.
A comparison between different aspects of the OK-First program in 1997 and 2017.
OK-FIRST/MESONET AWARDS
  • OEMA Outstanding Contributor to Emergency Management. Awarded to Oklahoma Climatological Survey Director Dr. Kenneth Crawford for his work with the Mesonet and OK-First (1998).

  • Innovations in American Government finalist (1999).

  • OEMA Outstanding Contributor to Emergency Management. Awarded to OK-First Program Manager Mr. Dale Morris for his work with OK-First and public safety officials (1999).

  • American Meteorological Society Special Award. Given to several agencies and television stations for outstanding and well-coordinated actions before, during, and after the historic 3 May 1999 tornado outbreak in central Oklahoma (2001).

  • Stockholm Challenge finalist. This award recognizes programs that accelerate the use of information technology for the social and economic benefit of citizens and communities and is offered by Stockholm, Sweden (2001).

  • Innovations in American Government Award. This recognition is given to the five most innovative government programs and is awarded by Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government (2001).

  • American Meteorological Society Special Award. For serving Oklahoma and the meteorological community by providing high-quality data and products (2005).

  • OEMA Outstanding Contributor to Emergency Management. Awarded to OK-First Program Managers Mr. Deke Arndt and Mr. Andrew Reader for their work with OK-First and public safety officials (2009).

OK-First has shown that there is immense value in providing nonscientific audiences with complex meteorological information when paired with well-designed, relevant, and routine training. In fact, it is argued that officials should never be expected to be able to properly interpret meteorological information and make good decisions from the data without some level of training. With the proliferation of weather information available through a variety of sources, it is increasingly difficult to educate a growing base of users. Despite this, weather education programs such as OK-First, NWS storm spotter training, and Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology, Education, and Training (COMET; Johnson et al. 2015) have demonstrated that it can be done for specific audiences.

Looking toward the future of OK-First, program staff are evaluating the feasibility of adding displaced real-time capability to the OK-First Weather Briefing page and RadarFirst software to support weather event laboratory exercises with more realistic decision-making time frames. In terms of training materials, there are plans to build an online repository of current OK-First educational materials (e.g., recorded presentations, screencast tutorials, quizzes, cheat sheets, and laboratory exercises) for informal, self-paced study outside the learning management system environment. Furthermore, and most importantly, the program will continue listening to the feedback of its participants and advisory committee to best guide future changes to training and data tools.

As the suite of NWS products and services continues to evolve over time, especially in the area of decision-support services for the public safety community, it is imperative that training be an included component. As has been learned through OK-First, training not only provides a forum for receiving critical feedback that can result in improved tools and class content, but it also facilitates relationship building and collaboration and promotes open communications between the different elements of the integrated warning team (NWS, public safety, and media). It is these relationships, ultimately, that dictate the local preparation for and effective management of high-impact weather events.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The Oklahoma Mesonet would like to thank the more than 1,400 public safety officials who have been a part of OK-First. Thank you for your commitment to the program, your many sacrifices to your communities, and the life-saving decisions you make every year. To the past program managers of OK-First—Dale Morris, Deke Arndt, Andrew Reader, and Nicole Giuliano—and the many current and former full-time and student staff at the Mesonet that have supported the program, thank you for 20 amazing years. Your tireless efforts have been key to the success and longevity of the program. Finally, we would like to extend our gratitude to Governor Mary Fallin as well as the Oklahoma legislature past and present for its annual support of the Oklahoma Mesonet and our outreach programs.

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Footnotes

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