Midlothian-based weather radar providing vital statistics to keep residents safe during storms

Andrew Branca | abranca@waxahachietx.com
This is an image of from the CASA radar showing weather information. The radar images it captures are of a higher quality and show greater detail than most. In addition to recording live rainfall totals, it can track hail and can show debris in its radar image from buildings damaged by storms.

MIDLOTHIAN — When severe weather strikes, having the most updated information can keep residents safe and save lives.

And one tool hopes to do just that in Ellis County.

The Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere Radar is a device that Midlothian and Ellis County first responders now have available to them to provide critical weather information. The information obtained through this technology provides greater detail on storms — both before their arrival and as the storms unfold.

Nexrad Radar

“The weather service has got a radar that we all know and love and have been using for years. Our current Nexrad is located at Spinks Airport, which is located in the northeast corner of Burleson,” said Joe Frizzell, co-chair of the CASA executive council for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. “The radar spins around and shoots out a beam. The further away you get from that radar (there is a) limitation of that beam because of the curvature of the Earth. The radar beam is like a flash light beam, it does not bend."

Frizzell explained the lowest Nexrad radar beam from Fort Worth is 1,800 feet and from Sulphur Springs the beam is 18,000 feet.

According to the National Weather Service’s website, Nexrad is used to warn the people of the country about dangerous weather. The maximum range of the Nexrad radar is 250 nautical miles. The Nexrad network provides significant improvements in severe weather and flash flood warnings, air traffic safety, flow control for air traffic, resource protection at military bases, and management of water, agriculture, forest, and snow removal.

CASA Radar

The idea to create a new radar system started 10 years ago as a National Science Foundation project with a group of universities, which included the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Colorado State University in Colorado Springs.

“The National Science Foundation and these universities said, ‘we need something that will look at ground level for storms and weather events.’ Basically, looking at it under the clouds,” Frizzell stated. “They took these X-band radars, which are high frequency and they put them in clusters so that they overlap.”

According to the NCTCOG’s website, the CASA radars make high-resolution observations at low altitudes on a scale that benefits public safety and commerce.

“CASA has already demonstrated, with a rural Oklahoma test bed, the potential for earlier tornado warnings, tornado and high wind forecasts, detection of high wind events, and more precise rainfall estimates,” the NCTCOG website states. “Moreover, CASA takes an ‘end-to-end’ approach to technology design and has engaged users of weather data, such as National Weather Service forecasters and emergency managers, as evaluators of the technology.”

Currently, there are seven radars set up and operating throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex with an eighth to go online in McKinney. These radars use a dual-pol technology to collect data.

“The radar beam either runs vertically or horizontally. Dual-pol means that it is shooting out a beam of both so you can see a circle,” Frizzell noted. “The dual-pol gives you a greater degree of accuracy. That is what lets us tell rainfall rates. It is like a rain gauge every 800 feet.”

Frizzell said the information in this system is updated every minute, unlike Nexrad that updates every five minutes. The radar images it captures are of a higher quality and show greater detail. In addition to taking live rainfall measurements, it can track hail and can show debris in its radar image from buildings damaged by storms. He added that the CASA system gets its strength through the network of radars that work together to provide the detailed and accurate information.

Midlothian CASA Radar

The Midlothian radar site was the first public-private partnership in the country for a radar system when it was built in 2013. Ridgeline Instruments donated the radar, Gerau donated the steel for the tower and other local companies donated the engineering and foundation work for the 50-foot tower. The City of Midlothian also contributed $40,000 to the project.

The radar is located behind the Midlothian Police Department. If the radar unit were purchased it would cost $500,000 and the installation would be about $200,000.

"This is not a government-funded thing. The U.S. Government is not funding this. The weather service as a department of commerce and pays $100,000 a year for access to this data,” Frizzell explained. “They now incorporate it into their workstations at their forecast office in Fort Worth. So they are seeing these radar images and this data, and incorporate it into all of their other weather instrumentation.”

Cities or counties who want access to the data for residents have to pay an annual subscription fee based on population size. A yearly fee for this information for cities in Ellis County ranges from $1,000 – $3,000. Cities the size of Grand Prairie would have a cost of $20,000 a year and a city the size of Dallas would be about $35,000 a year.

The only current subscribers in the county are the Cities of Red Oak and Midlothian and Ellis County. It takes around $500,000 a year to maintain the network of CASA radars in the Metroplex.

Frizzell noted that the radar is supported by private donations and through the public-private partnership. He encourages cities and counties to subscribe, which helps to keep the project going and keep residents’ safe.

Frizzell and Stephanie Parker, who is the Ellis County Emergency Management Coordinator, plan to speak with cities throughout the year about the benefits that this system can provide to aid residents in an emergency.

“As a county, the very minimum fee that we pay it is worth it. I can warn our citizens so much faster instead of being reactive I can be pro active,” Parker said. “We wait two or three days sometimes to let us know what our rainfall amounts are. Now Joe can tell me at this second what the rainfall amount is at any given moment inside my county. That is huge because I can gauge flooding and warn our citizens about flash flooding a lot faster.”

Smart Phone App

The information from the CASA radar will soon be available to be viewed by residents who live in areas that have subscribed to the service. The app is free to download and is only available for iPhones starting Oct. 1. It can be found by searching “CASA Radar” at the app store.

Prior to use, the app asks the user permission to use the phone’s stored location information to provide updated weather information.

Parker noted that this system is a great tool in helping to save lives but in goes hand in hand with the other resources in the county such as storm spotters, ham radio operators, the National Weather Service, the media and social media.

“I truly believe that when you combine everything this makes a difference,” Parker said. “You can save a life by getting people from outdoors to indoors to keep them safe.”