Shelter From the Storm

As Tropical Storm Alberto neared landfall today and the National Weather Service issued a hurricane warning for Florida's Gulf Coast, Jason Jackson wasn't exactly an uninterested observer.

"It's most definitely been a busy morning," says Jackson, the director of emergency management for Wal-Mart facilities nationwide. He'd just been monitoring activity at the retailing giant's emergency operations center, and had escalated to level 2 in anticipation of Alberto's arrival.

Jackson's job could become a bit easier later this year as Wal-Mart implements a mobile weather alert system developed by WeatherBug and Send Word Now. Called the Smart Notification Weather Service, the system will provide automatic, real-time alerts to enterprise subscribers in case of impending severe-weather emergencies, from blizzards to tornados to hurricanes.

Based on information from WeatherBug's network of tracking stations across the country -- along with Send Word Now's emergency notification system -- the new service will plot current weather conditions "at the neighborhood level," according to WeatherBug director of business development Jim Anderson. It will also provide location-based messages to cell phones, laptops, mobile-email handsets and other mobile devices.

The weather-alert services offered today, says Anderson, "are too generic, too early, or too late, and they provide information that's not relevant intelligence for decision makers who need this kind of system to save lives and property."

The Smart Weather service could become even more valuable to large, far-flung enterprises if, as expected, global climate change leads to an increase in the number of catastrophic storms -- particularly on the Gulf Coast and across the Tornado Belt stretching from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Coast.

Wal-Mart's Jackson declines to specify how much the Bentonville, Ark.-based company loses each year in sales due to weather-related incidents, but he acknowledges that "weather is the greatest disruption point in our business." The Smart Weather system, which will be in trials at Wal-Mart starting in August and could be rolled out widely across the chain's 3,800 stores later this year, will replace a manual system in which staffers at Wal-Mart's emergency center ring up store managers with advance warning of oncoming storms.

"We got word out pretty much in real time, after alerts from the National Weather Service," Jackson says, "but we realized after looking at events like Super Tuesday [in 1974], when you've got tens or even hundreds of tornadoes being spawned, it's hard to keep up with that level of activity."

Florida's Broward County School District, located in one of the areas most prone to extreme weather events in the continental U.S., will also test the service.

"The state of Florida averages 10 deaths and 40 injuries due to lightning in Florida each year, and half occur during recreational activities," says Jerry Graziose, the Broward County School Board safety director. "We believe the Smart Notification Weather Service can help reduce that number significantly."

The Smart Weather service takes information from the WeatherBug tracking station network -- which, with 8,000 stations updating every two seconds over the Internet, is far denser and more timely than the NWS network, which has 1,200 stations (mostly at airports) updating every hour -- and sends out alerts to subscribers based on their profiles and their locations via the Send Word Now network. A Java application on the user's mobile device lets the service know the user's location and can be enabled to receive more detailed information, such as "Seek Shelter Now."

The service also offers two-way messaging, so that local managers can send back a "message received" reply, and it generates an audit log that shows who received the message, when they received it, and on what device they acknowledged it. The logging feature, explains Jackson, "allows us to deal with exceptions," following up with stores or distribution centers that don't automatically respond to the alert.

According to Anderson, the service is expected to cost around $10 per user per month. Jackson wouldn't say how much Wal-Mart is investing in the system.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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