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Weather Service launches early warning system

In tornado country, the automated, Web-based process sends emergency workers a heads-up on disasters before public warnings.

Tornado Alley may sound like a theme-park ride, but in reality, it's the L-shaped strip of land winding from Texas to Minnesota that hosts some of the deadliest twisters in the country.

It's there--and in the midst of what meteorologists predict to be an "extremely active" hurricane season--that the National Weather Service's Dallas-Ft. Worth forecast office on Tuesday will launch a new way of coordinating with widely dispersed emergency personnel.

Let's say meteorologists detect the signs of a storm brewing. It's weather service practice to give an early heads-up to local first responders and storm-spotting teams before the agency issues a public warning about impending weather dangers. Those few minutes of lead time can give emergency personnel time to get their operations centers in order before a possible deluge of calls and requests from the public.

Since last year, the Dallas-Ft. Worth office had been looking for a way to expedite that prenotification process across its bustling 49-county area, which counts about 7 million residents, according to a press release.

Previously, staff at the busy office had been using a wide variety of manual notification methods, ranging from picking up a phone and calling small volunteer fire departments to sending out mass e-mail notifications with no automatic assurance that the messages had been received.

The office decided to implement AlertFind, a system developed by an Austin, Texas-based company called MessageOne, which also specializes in tools for backing up and restoring e-mail in the event of power outages or disasters. It began testing the system several months ago, said Michael Rosenfelt, MessageOne's executive vice president.

Gary Woodall, a warning coordination meteorologist in the Dallas-Ft. Worth office, said in a press release that the office was looking for a process that would be "easy to learn and use" and "not require extensive resources to manage." Woodall, whose office was busy dealing with floods in the area on Monday, was not available for further comment.

Using AlertFind, a Web-based system that uses no extra software, Weather Service personnel can automatically send out messages to those on their prenotification lists. They can transmit them to all of a person's communication avenues at once, or they can program the system to try the contacts on an "escalating" basis: Say, for instance, the system doesn't get a response through a person's landline. It would then automatically try the next option on that person's record--a cell phone, a BlackBerry, an alphanumeric pager--and keep going down the list until it reached the person or someone designated as a backup contact.

The new system also permits two-way communications--that is, the Weather Service can require that people respond to affirm that they have received a message. (Via phone, for instance, this may mean pressing a certain key, an action that would be reported back in real time to the Weather Service.) The Weather Service can also require the recipient of the message to enter a PIN to ensure that the intended person--not simply whoever happened to answer the phone, for example--has received the message.

"The National Weather Service came to us with an interest in enhancing their notification process, and with their help and guidance we were able to jointly define a system that automated what is a critical process and gives them a higher level of accuracy and efficiency," Rosenfelt said.

Rosenfelt said he expects the Weather Service's some 125 other regional offices to roll out the system, but he could not provide details on when that process may start.