MISSOULA, Mont. -

When severe thunderstorms are in the forecast, every minute is crucial. The more time people have to plan and prepare for dangerous weather, the more likely that they will keep themselves and their possessions safe.

It's the mission of the First Alert Weather team and the National Weather Service, which owns a vast network of radars across the United States, to warn the public when severe weather approaches. Recently a new upgrade to these radars is giving meteorologists everywhere faster information to do just that.

In western Montana mountain peaks can block radar signals. For the radar to "see" the most amount of sky it can, they are often placed atop high mountain peaks. The Missoula radar is atop Point Six Mountain, an hour's drive north, and up, from Interstate 90.

There is a catch to seeing as much of the sky you can. Some of the most important parts remain invisible to the radar. It can't see below the elevation the radar sits at. In the case of the Missoula radar, that's almost 8,000 feet above sea level.

In the case of thunderstorms, much of the lower part of the storm cannot be seen. This makes the radar scan of the lowest elevations that much more important -- that's you spot the dangerous weather, heavy rain, hail, high winds and tornadoes, moments before they strike.

A radar works by sending out beams of radio waves across huge slices of sky. The radar scans different elevations during a full update cycle. The cycle takes five minutes to complete. The lowest elevation scan, what you see as radar on your smartphone, computer, or on television, is only updated every five minutes while it waits for the radar to finish scanning higher elevations.

During severe weather this can become a problem. Low-level structures in severe storms can grow and dissipate in a matter of minutes, sometimes in between scan cycles.

A new software update from the National Weather Service is fixing that problem. It's called SAILS -- an acronym that stands for Supplemental Adaptive Inter-volume Low-level Scan. It modifies the radar scanning process by adding an extra step.

The radar always begins by scanning the lowest level, then slowly rising while spinning a full 360 degrees. Halfway through the process, SAILS commands the radar to drop back to the lowest level and get a new scan. The radar then finishes the full update cycle before starting all over again.

Using SAILS, meteorologists everywhere, including the First Alert Weather team, get radar updates around every two minutes instead of every five minutes.

For National Weather Service meteorologists like Marty Whitemore in Missoula, it means they can issue a warning that much faster.

"It doesn't sound like much, but when you're trying to figure out if a storm is a garden-variety thunderstorm or if it is potentially damaging, evolving into one of the really big boys, we want quick data."

SAILS has been installed on most of the hundreds of National Weather Service radars across the country, including those used by NBC Montana. With the potential for a few extra minutes to prepare for bad weather, you can protect what's important.