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For now, trust humans

April 29, 1997

Have you ever had to make a phone call and reached one of those electronic attendants? Not only must you make your way through an electronic directory, but at the search's end, you're as likely as not to reach a "voice mailbox" which gives you no indication whether your party is in, out, alive or dead.

Inconvenient? Yes. Aggravating? Without a doubt. Dangerous? Probably not.

We wish we could say the same about the automated weather-tracking system at the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport, off U.S. 11, south of Martinsburg. The Federal Aviation Administration purchased the system hoping it would (surprise!) be cheaper than human weather observers. But based on news reports, we'd say this system desperately needs a human touch.

According to Bill Walkup, the airport manager, the system can't detect ice storms and thunderstorms. In February, he said, the system did not detect an ice storm immediately and when it did, didn't report the condition for an hour.

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Pilots who may be worried by such reports can relax, at least for now. Walkup says the human weather observers are still in place, and in addition to their other duties, are "babysitting" the system. That means that instead of replacing humans at a lower costs, taxpayers will pay for both the system and people to sit and watch it, to make sure it works.

The system works by projecting an infrared beam from one point to another. As falling precipitation breaks the beam, the system is supposed to determine what kind of precipitation it is. Snowflakes would presumably fall slowly, while a hard rainstorm, like those that accompanying thunderstorms, would fall faster.

We're not scientists, but if officials are determined to remove the human weather observers, it would seem to make more sense to place video cameras at various for monitoring at a central location. And until computers and related systems work a little better than this one seems to, we'd like to see humans watching the screens.

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