Weatherfax broadcasts avoid the axe

Two years ago, pressure from Congress for budget cuts raised the possibility that marine weatherfax products from the National Weather Service would either be eliminated or privatized. No longer, it seemed, would mariners at sea get U.S. weather charts via high frequency (HF) radio. Today, however, the situation seems to have taken a turn for the better: weather charts are still being drawn by NWS meteorologists, and they are still being broadcast by the Coast Guard to mariners in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico. According to Dave Feit, chief of the Marine Forecast Branch, the production of marine weatherfax charts was in jeopardy two years ago. "There was a great assault on it," said Feit. "That assault has been stemmed by outcry from users." But not at some costdue to an overall decrease in NWS budgets, various departments have had to cut back on their products and services. For the Marine Forecast Branch, this has meant the end of 24-hour staffing for the Atlantic and Pacific teams. Now those areas only have coverage 20 hours a day. NWS’s Marine Forecast Branch has also had to drop two products, the 96-hour forecast and the sea-state analysis. Thus, the furthest forward a mariner relying on NWS weatherfax can look is three days, not the customary four. "We’ve lost the vehicle to transmit that information to the mariner," said Joe Sienkiewicz, a NWS forecaster at the Marine Forecast Center. This inability to track longer-term forecasts could affect weather routing and might result in more search and rescue (SAR) cases. "It costs about $50,000 an hour for a full-scale SAR effort," said Feit. According to Feit, in a few hours you could burn up enough money on a SAR mission to pay the $100,000 needed to add back two staff meteorologists. This would mean once again providing 24-hour coverage and renewing the 96-hour forecast chart. Still, the bottom line is that the charts continue to be available. "My gut feeling is that wehavestabilized," said Feit. "The system shouldn’t see any cuts for the foreseeablefuture." Though charts survive, Congress did put some restrictions on NWS. One of these is a prohibitionon broadcasting weatherfax charts or, indeed, disseminating them in any way. "We can provide them, but we can’t ship them," said Feit. In the previous system, NWS leased phone lines to the Coast Guard’s various communications stations, from which the fax products were broadcast. NWS no longer leases those lines due to the new "no ship" policy. NWS stores the charts in one of its computers; anybody who wants to pay for the phone line can connect to it (you can also get charts from the NWS Web site: charts are still being broadcast, however, because the Coast Guard stepped in and assumed the costs of phone lines. "We broadcast weatherfax for our own purposes," said Ed Brady, radio frequency manager at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., who pointed out that Coast Guard cutters need up-to-date weather information. "We feel they have the need for fax." According to Brady, the needs of the Coast Guard’s fleet is one of two reasons for paying for the phone lines to get fax products to its communications stations. The other reason is for general marine safety. Brady acknowledged that many commercial and recreational mariners are using and relying on weatherfax charts. It might seem odd in a time of fiscal austerity, when the Coast Guard is cutting some of its own programs due to tighter budgets, that it would pick up the tab for the phone lines. But this cost transfer is part of a larger story. "The added cost is minimal," said Brady. "In fact, it’s getting cheaper as we go. As we automate our system it costs less." In the past, the Coast Guard operated multiple communications stations along U.S. coasts, each with its own equipment, broadcast staff, and technicians. Recently, however, as part of its own cost-saving measures and due to improved technology, the Coast Guard has moved to automate most of the comm stations and run them from a master station on the East Coast and one on the West Coast. Previously, the Coast Guard has run separate HF offshore radio stations at Boston, Mass.; Portsmouth, Va.; and Miami (as opposed to its coastal network of VHF stations). These stations have either been switched over to automatic operation or are currently undergoing the transfer. When this process is completed in the next few years, the three East Coast stations will have technicians on site to do maintenance and tuning of the equipment, but there will be no "operational" personnel at the stations. An operational staff located at Chesapeake, Va., will remotely operate the three East Coast stations. Eventually the Chesapeake master station will also remotely operate the New Orleans station. A similar process will occur on the West Coast, where the station at Point Reyes, Calif., will become the controlling station for automated stations in Southern California, Guam, Honolulu, and Astoria, Wash. Actually, the system is reportedly robust enough to allow one master station to run the entire slate of stations. "In fact, it’s been used," said Brady. Severe rain storms in California that occurred while the Pt. Reyes station was being re-roofed caused certain functions of the Pt. Reyes station to be transferred to the Chesapeake master station. Given the Coast Guard’s increasing use of satellite communications, how long will the Coast Guard fleet require the use of HF weatherfax charts? According to Brady, the HF capability is a reliable backup to satellite-based systems. "There is no plan to eliminate it," said Brady. Just as changes have occurred in the broadcast of weatherfax charts, there has also been a change on the user’s side. In the past, weatherfax use meant having a bulky, dedicated weatherfax unit on board. These units were usually combined HF receivers and thermal printers. (Another type of unit had no built-in radio but took the output from an HF receiver and used it to print charts.) These types of units have largely disappeared, replaced by weatherfax software on laptop and desktop computers. If you want a stand-alone weatherfax machine that prints on thermal paper, you can still get one. Furuno, for example, continues to offer a marine weatherfax machine, the FAX207. The advantage of this dedicated machine approach is that it can be scheduled to run unattended and will print charts automatically. However, the downside is that you can run through a big stack of thermal paper gathering charts that you may not need or, because of atmospheric effects, may be of poor quality. On the other hand, one of the big advantages of using weatherfax software on a computer is the way you canmanipulate the data. Once the fax picture is in the machine, you can re-size, crop, add false color, or invert the image. Some programs will also improve images that contain noise and static. They will look at a noise pixel and compare it to surrounding image pixels. Based on an algorithm, the software will calculate what that pixel probably would have been had the image been received withoutinterference.Thisiscalled softwareinterpolation,anditcan often do a good job of cleaning up a noisy image. With software-based weatherfax you don’t end up with reamsof paper; you can decide to store images on your hard disk, print them out, or delete the ones you don’t need. In order to use these programs, you need a laptop and an SSB radio. Along with the program on floppy disks or CD, you also get a modem and cables that connect the modem to the radio and the computer. In order for an SSB to be used for weatherfax, the radio in question needs to have an audio output jack. You plug one of the modem cables into this jack; the other end is hard-wired to the modem. The modem is then cabled to the computer’s serial port, or the modem box connects directly to the serial port. One DOS-based product, OFS Weatherfax, uses a PC Card for inputting fax data. A few of these weatherfax products have a modem with a built-in microprocessor designed to handle the analog-to-digital conversion of the audio frequency output from the radio. Two examples are Coretex’s Weatherfax for Windows and Software Systems Consulting’s PC HF Facsimile 8.0 for Windows. (Weatherfax is broadcast using a technique called frequency shift keying, or FSK. Black and white images are easy to send this way; one frequency is black and the other frequency is white. A chart is broadcast by alternating between these two frequencies. Grayscale images require a more sophisticated modulation technique.) The modem then passes this digital data on to the computer and the weatherfax program for display. This "processor on board" approach reduces the work load on the computer’s CPU, freeing it up for other tasks. For those mariners who have an SSB but don’t have an on-board computer, Coretex offers a black box called the Fax-4. This device interprets weatherfax charts and passes them on to an ink-jet printer. In addition to weatherfax products for DOS, Windows 3.1 and Windows 95, there is also Macintosh-based software. A new product from Quintessence Designs is called WeathermaQ. Because of the Mac’s built-in audio capabilities, no modem is required. A cable from the radio to a Mac’s microphone jack is all that’s needed. Also available for Mac OS users is a no-frills freeware program written by Chris Smolinski of Westminster, Md. Called MultiMode, it will reportedly decode weatherfax charts. All of these units require an SSB-capable HF radio to receive the weatherfax broadcasts. But if you are using your SSB transceiver for receiving faxes, you can’t use it for voice communications. Some electronics manufacturers offer HF receive-only units that are designed to be hooked up to a laptop and pick up weatherfax charts. The Si-Tex Nav-Fax 100 and 200, for example, can also pick up international broadcast, commercial, and amateur frequencies, so you can listen to the BBC or China Radio International while at sea. For those who can afford it, this approach frees up the main SSB for voice communications.

By Ocean Navigator