Screen capture of NC-FIRST

NC-First (screen image) Click to enlarge.

Carolina Aids First Responders to Disasters

In the past, North Carolina’s emergency managers had to navigate seven separate National Weather Service warning areas online to try to assess hazardous weather close to home.

But a new tool called NC-FIRST is helping emergency service providers across the state interpret weather data and coordinate response plans more easily. This Web portal – a home page divided into four different screens – gives first responders easy access to a wide range of weather data so they can make better decisions during weather emergencies. The template is the same across the state, but each county can tailor the information they choose to their own area. Modeled on the successful OK-FIRST program created at the University of Oklahoma, NC-FIRST was developed by the Renaissance Computing Institute, a collaborative venture of Carolina, N.C. State University, Duke University and the State of North Carolina.

“NC-FIRST, for the first time, pulls together in one picture the weather hazards across the state,” said Ed Jenkins, manager of the Planning Support Branch at the N.C. Division of Emergency Management. “Because of NC-FIRST, offices can now display state hazards seamlessly, which allows decision makers to better understand the threat to citizens.”

RENCI has trained emergency managers in some of the state’s most storm-vulnerable counties on how to use the portal and how to interpret information from weather stations, satellites and other government sources. Designed for North Carolina emergency personnel, the weather portal tailors its information to the user’s county, providing an accurate, real-time picture of local weather conditions.

Weather disasters put communities and thousands of people at risk each year and have the potential of costing the state millions of dollars. It puts the most advanced tools used in prediction and planning into the hands of the people who need them the most: the county emergency managers who are on the front lines when severe storms strike.

The NC-FIRST tropical storm training modules are the first of a planned series of weather-related modules. This fall, RENCI unveiled new NC-FIRST materials that help responders interpret data on icing and snow. Those modules were incorporated into fall training courses for emergency managers on dealing with winter weather. For more on NC-FIRST, see

Other ways UNC helps in emergency situations

Flood sensor network: RENCI and Brunswick County have identified 14 sites along roadways in Brunswick County – one of the fastest growing counties in the state and one of the most vulnerable to flash floods caused by hurricanes and storm surges – as both flood-prone and critical during evacuations. Over several months, starting in the fall of 2007, RENCI has been installing and testing its prototype flood sensor system in order to understand what communication tools and types of sensors work best in alerting officials of rising water conditions.

Floodplain remapping project: RENCI is collaborating with UNC, the Army Corps of Engineers, experts from the private sector and the North Carolina Floodplain Mapping Program to develop new state-of-the-art floodplain models and update existing coastal county floodplain maps. The goal is to help emergency managers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) model worst-case scenario coastal flooding due to tropical and extra-tropical storms and determine the best responses to them. The new state-of-the-art computer models provide improved results compared to older, lower resolution models that do not account for the last decade’s extensive coastal development and improved land use datasets developed over the last few years. The maps derived by the state from the model results will provide homeowners more accurate information about their coastal flood risks from year to year, including the likelihood of experiencing a 100-year, or base, flood in any given year. They also will help in setting insurance rates and creating sustainable development plans.

Emergency Demonstration Project: Hertford County is one of six communities on the Atlantic Seaboard to be part of this federally funded project that seeks to improve disaster preparedness in very low-income communities that are at high risk for disasters such as hurricanes. Researchers from UNC are working with the people of Hertford County to develop solutions that will work for them. Some of the recommended responses include using church phone trees to make contact with elderly and disabled residents so that they can be evacuated in an emergency; using the resources of nearby Caledonia Prison to provide emergency food supplies to residents and identifying transportation resources and drop sites for food.

Team Epi-Aid: More than 200 students are currently members of Team Epi-Aid, an award-winning volunteer student group at the UNC School of Public Health. These students have contributed more than 3,500 volunteer hours since 2003, including conducting rapid needs assessment following Hurricanes Isabel (2003), Charley (2004), Rita (2005), Wilma (2005) and Katrina (2006). Team Epi-Aid provides local and state health departments with much needed help during crisis situations, giving them the extra workers required to investigate outbreaks or conduct surveillance activities.

Weather portal will help the state’s science teachers, too

A related project is in the works to help science teachers throughout the state. NC-FIRST for Teachers is a project designed to help meet the state’s requirement that Earth and environmental science teachers in high school and seventh-grade science teachers teach meteorology and weather and address the relevance of technology in science. The NC-FIRST weather data portal can be used by science teachers to provide relevant, interactive and innovative education that demonstrates the importance of, and generates interest in, technology, climate, atmospheric science and earth science among pre-college students. Starting in the spring of 2008, RENCI education and outreach experts will provide training to teachers in the use of the NC-FIRST weather portal in the classroom as a tool to teach meteorology and atmospheric science. RENCI also will assist teachers in the process of incorporating the weather portal into their curricula.

Through its teaching, research and public service, Carolina connects with the people of our state every day in ways that improve lives and build futures.

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