Setting up and operating the Project Operation Centre (POC) in Milano was a great, but also a very demanding experience! An incredible amount of work had to be done, especially in the first half of 1999, in order to prepare and launch the POC. The SOP was then a two and a half month period of fruitful, uninterrupted, and most intense work. At the end, we at the POC were both satisfied with the successful scientific data acquisition activity, and convinced that a more careful preparation could have lead to smoother operations. However, time, budget, and personnel constraints together with the unique characteristics of the experiment made it impossible to do any better. The mixture of lucky (the weather!) and unlucky (technology!) situations produced a formidable challenge. The great and constant efforts of scientific, technical, and logistic personnel at the POC lead to the overall success of Milano's contribution to MAP.
A short review of the most important aspects of POC activity is presented in the following. The focus lies more on the critical points as seen from Milano's point of view than on the successful ones, since it is not my duty to stress the latter.
Figure 1. The POC was hosted in the building of the Centro Meteorologico Regionale (CMR) in Milano-Linate.
The Italian Meteorological Service started a proposal for hosting a MAP Operation Centre already in spring of 1997. In December MAP IGP decided to establish the Project Operation Centre Radar in Milano because of the large scientific and operational interest focused on the nearby Lago Maggiore target area, including the Ticino/Toce watershed, and the convenient facilities offered. As early as January 1998 a detailed project was set up by a qualified team of experts for the hardware/software upgrade of the Centro Meteorologico Regionale (CMR) in Milano-Linate. Actions were at the same time started in Rome to obtain all the necessary authorisations and financing from the Air Force and other Italian authorities involved. The assigned duties fell into two categories:
It soon became clear that CMR had to fulfil another important function: to help most of the foreign teams install their equipment and instrumentation in the field, and to be the interface between them and the Italian telecommunication, electric power, and local administrative agencies. A lot of time and effort was needed to overcome a long list of different administrative and technical difficulties, not only for the American guests, but also for the European ones. Technical preparation at the POC concerned mainly computers, telecommunication lines, the VHF link to MAP aircraft, and rooms to be reserved for MAP-SOP teams. At the same time preparations were made to host the two French aircraft at the Linate Air Force airbase.
On the national side, after years of scientific and technical meetings, a first example of operational co-ordination among a large number of independent agencies, which were involved in MAP, was set from summer 1999 on. By that time all available automatic weather stations in Northern Italy were transmitting their data to the POC in near-real time using a unique code. It is satisfying to see that the same code, proposed by CMR and unanimously adopted, was just recently approved for the planned coordinated monitoring of the Po River basin due to the positive experience with it during SOP.
Sponsoring Italian agency for MAP and SOP operations in Milano was the Italian Air Force Meteorological Service, while the scientific instrumentation was mainly funded by the National Research Council CNR. All project and implementation work stems from a very small group of MAP enthusiastic colleagues working in Rome (UGM and CNMCA) and in Milano (CMR) under the overall co-ordination by Roberto Sorani, IGP vice-chairman. An essential contribution in software (and some hardware) questions was provided by the MDC. Hans Hirter visited the POC twice before the SOP to provide the database software, the web camera, and much help in configuration work.
The local forecasting team was efficiently enlarged by a number of forecasters from other Northern Italian meteorological agencies and Air Force Met Offices. Important tools were the LAPS interface by ISAO-ARPA ER, the output of BOLAM (Bologna), and the operational availability of the integrated radar information from the Ronsard/S-Pol/Mt. Lema system through the Mt. Zebra Workstations. These were set up by the small but very efficient Washington University and NCAR groups. Essential for SOP operations was also the large amount of information coming via internet from MOC and MDC.
The great experience acquired in many similar experiments by the UCAR representatives (first of all Jim Moore) provided an invaluable contribution in optimising activities and coordinating work with the MOC and ATC operators. It has to be underlined that the success of MAP flights is largely due to good will and exceptional co-operation of local ATC authorities and both civilian and military shift controllers. Also essential in reducing communication costs and providing invaluable suggestions and help before and during the SOP, was the INFN team at Milano University. MAP also helped by providing extra funding for an operational phone-line (also intended as ISDN back up) between the POC operations room in Linate and the MOC briefing room in Innsbruck.
The POC was active for about three months: from the first installation work by French and US groups at the end of August to the last shipping after November 20. During this time, more than 300 people were involved, with a mean daily presence of about 35 guests at the POC. Radar related activities started early in September, thanks to prior work by the Washington University group in close co-ordination with the Swiss Mt. Lema and the French Ronsard radar. As planned, French aircraft scientists and crews arrived after the SOP began. The Merlin IV came on September 14, the Fokker 27 ARAT one day later. The POC activity fully developed with the start of joined air operations with US aircraft. At that moment, also the planned communication bandwidth was fully operating (256 Kbytes), while in the first days only a reduced communications channel had been available. This was due to budget limitations and some technical difficulties with the telecom company, which also seriously affected the Ronsard ISDN line at the POC in the first days of the SOP.
The routine of briefings and meetings at the POC continued from the first to the last day of the SOP with only one exception (general MAP holiday). Forecaster work was the first to start early in the morning (normally before 7 LT). The results were presented in the morning briefing at 8:30 to the relatively small but always interested and active POC scientific community. Later, as planned, the main briefing at the MOC could be followed via speakers and video in the same POC briefing room. Technical and communication problems due to phone/speakers interface as well as to language and voice problems by individuals (and for video due to insufficient technical and communication co-ordination), often made complete understanding a challenge. Nevertheless, the joint main briefings and MST meetings, still later in the morning, could always be held and were crucial and efficient in establishing the consensus on daily scientific and operational plans.
Among the most important achievements at the POC, I would like to remember the VHF radio link system (even if it was somewhat difficult to use at the beginning). The double console allowed to directly contact pilots and scientific teams on board the MAP aircraft, and to guide them through the dense commercial and military air traffic in the region towards the best scientific targets. It is a pity that automatic real- time aircraft position could not be realised, but manual operation was anyway possible and efficient. Essential were the co-operation offered by the Milano FIR ATC agency and the exceptional efforts by Jim Moore and José Meitín.
There were not only success stories but also a number of minor inconveniences that made operations bumpier than desired. Here, I would like to touch only two of them: the MOC-POC audio-video conference and the database mirroring between the MOC, POC, and MDC.
After an initial underestimate of the importance of a very efficient audio-video link between both centres, we set up, with some delay, a provisional phone link to the existing microphone-loudspeaker system in the briefing room. There were still difficulties in understanding presentations and questions of the MOC colleagues. Therefore, we were forced to use a simpler albeit more efficient loudspeaker phone. The drawback was that only a few people around the table could really understand and interact with the MOC. The video-link proved to be also very useful, but NetMeeting was almost impossible in the first days of SOP because of insufficient bandwidth at the POC, while it was no longer practically available at the MOC later. Operational interactions between the POC and MOC were always possible, but more experience in teleconferencing could have eased and enhanced the scientific exchange between both centres.
Regarding the second item, lack of experience and insufficient preparation tests are the main causes of the limited efficiency of the database mirroring system. While images could be exchanged in a satisfactory way, alphanumeric data were practically exchanged only as text files and the Oracle database remained mostly unused - at least at the POC. This also caused a delay in completing the data sets at the MDC after the end of the SOP.
What to do after so much work? In Italy, the MAP experience has been an effective first step towards a renewed national meteorological service. A common background has been established during the SOP, and it is likely to be operationally used in the next future. This is already a noticeable result! Moreover, to continue some form of co-operation among the Alpine weather centres will be a highly desirable objective and any proposal and suggestion in this sense is welcome! The main short term goal is to set up a complete database of the SOP operationally acquired data to be transferred to the MDC. This work should be finished at the time of publication of this newsletter.
A general evaluation of the SOP will take place during the MAP Meeting 2000, especially by the CIG. Certainly, from our point of view, the POC was a unique challenge, an exceptional professional and human experience, and a good achievement. The outlined difficulties, which did not hinder the MAP scientific goals, constitute an invaluable basis of knowledge and experience for further and more efficient meteorological work, for both routine activities and for national and international scientific and operational co-operation.
It is impossible to thank here all the colleagues, scientists, and technicians we are indebted to for the POC success. Nevertheless, I want to emphasize that everybody working at or for the POC gave an essential and much appreciated contribution. Every deficiency in organising the POC and all the drawbacks (both fortunately not fatal!) during the SOP are only my personal responsibility.