For about a month now, city officials have locked horns with carriage tour company owners over plans to move the city's official outdoor thermometer. Now that debate will carry over at least until next summer.
What's more, it is not clear what will be accomplished if the city ever does relocate its official thermometer from Calhoun Street to the City Market. The city requires all carriage companies to pull their horses inside when the temperature breaches 98 degrees on two consecutive readings. The 98-degree threshold comes from a 1986 study conducted by veterinarians including Dr. Cynthia Smith, who had an equine practice in the Market at the time.
Back then, when the city's thermometer was in a breezy spot at the Customs House, Smith put two charts side by side: ambient temperature readings from the outdoor thermometer and internal temperature readings from carriage companies' rectal thermometers. Often, a 98-degree ambient temperature reading coincided with internal temperatures that were getting into the danger zone — around 103 to 104 degrees.
"If you start using a different standard of measurement, it has to be comparable to what you were using in the past," Smith says. She says the city took this into consideration over the years as it moved the thermometer to 113 Calhoun St. and, temporarily, to the First Baptist Church gymnasium just off the Market. Now, the city plans to put a new thermometer on the Market and compare its readings to the ones from the Calhoun Street thermometer for three months. Smith recommends that, if the Market thermometer for some reason reads 112 degrees when the Calhoun Street one reads 98, then the threshold should be 112 on the Market.
The bone of contention all along has been that, while city officials and doctors say a relocated thermometer would give a more accurate reading, the carriage company owners say it could hamstring the industry with more frequent 98-plus readings. Officials have noted that no carriage company has had a heat-related incident in over 25 years, but Councilman Aubry Alexander said in a meeting Monday that the sterling track record was no guarantee.
"There are things that have been done for 25 years in this city that don't work," he said. "To say that it hasn't happened doesn't mean that it can never happen."
The city had planned to spend $3,800 to buy and install the new thermometer by Monday, but the vendor, Rees Scientific Corporation, backed out in early August, leaving the city scrambling to find someone else to sell a high-end digital thermometer that can connect to the city's wireless network.
With the summer's hottest months now past, and with no new vendor announced, the council members present at Monday's meeting agreed that the planned three-month trial period will have to wait until next year.
Mike Larsen, an atmospheric physicist at the College of Charleston, attended the meeting to give his opinion: Accuracy is not the issue.
"For all we know, the temperature we're dealing with could be 10 degrees off, and if that's true, then we've got to deal with it," he said.
"It's better to have a consistent measurement that matches than to have a measurement that's actually more accurate but would cause us to pull the animals too early or too late."