For example, when a lightning strike occurs within a 20-mile ring around the county, the program sends out an advisory that lightning is approaching the area. If another strike occurs within 10 miles of the county, another warning is automatically generated. If no lightning is detected in Boulder County during a 30-minute period, an “all clear” message is sent out.

The technology isn’t perfect, however. Chard recalled that at times, you could hear the crack of lightning outside the county’s emergency office, and see a marker pop up on the screen 20 seconds later. Other times a lightning strike has taken minutes to register.

One of the system’s other useful parts is a prediction feature. If the option is enabled, the detection system tracks and predicts the path of a lightning storm. Chard said his team has experimented with the prediction component and found it to be fairly reliable.

Boulder County officials can use the system to estimate storm advancement and the probability of lightning hitting specific locations, which will help preparedness efforts for various community events. The Boulder Office of Emergency Management plans to use the predictive technology when a race route for the U.S. Pro Cycling Challenge travels through the area on Saturday, Aug. 25.

“We will be able to give [the data] to incident commanders and event planners,” Chard said. “There is actual radar technology that goes with it — it just doesn’t show lightning, it also shows the storm and its intensity through radar imagery and gives you storm attributes. It gives you a vector direction of the storm … and a timeline of when that is going to hit a location.”

Looking Ahead

The software subscription costs BOEM approximately $6,900 per year, according to Chard. The system is monitoring a 50 by 50-mile area that completely covers Boulder County and a good chunk of neighboring counties so staff members can see potential severe weather events moving into the area.

Investing almost $7,000 each year might be a bit steep for some local governments, but Chard said it’s a fairly small investment considering the loss of life and property damage that wildfires can cause. VandenHeuvel said prices start at $2,400 per year and up, depending on the amount of lightning coverage needed and specialty layers added to the system.

WDT has a variety of advancements on the horizon for the lightning detection system.  VandenHeuvel said the sensor network is being continually upgraded as new sensor locations are added. The company also continues to create new weather layers for its program and recently added a live chat feature so users can go back and forth with WDT meteorologists.

Chard felt that one of the system’s most useful features is its archived data. Users can go back and look at any date and time to get lightning strike information. However, the search can take some time because the data exists in one-hour increments. Chard would like to see that improved in a future iteration of the program.

The lightning display screen shuts down after an hour. Once restarted, it boots up with fresh data, not the previously displayed information. This could pose problems for a user trying to find a strike that someone out in the field is investigating.

“Lightning strikes may take a couple of hours to even manifest, [so] you have to go back through layers in order to find … the strike that someone may be going to,” Chard said. The process is a bit difficult. “It would be nice to see the ability to tweak the viewing time frame of the data.”

Brian Heaton  | 

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.