Speeding weather alerts

Germantown's WeatherBug firm rolls out quicker warnings this week for schools and businesses


Jerry Graziose's cell phone went off four times during one 64-minute period this week, each time warning of severe weather in the south Florida school district where he is in charge of safety.

1:08 p.m.: Lightning strike alert. "Seek shelter now," the phone read.

1:36 p.m.: Heat index above 100 degrees.

1:45 p.m.: 40-mile-per-hour wind gusts.

2:12 p.m.: Lightning strike alert still in effect.

Graziose, director of safety for the Broward County school system, is one of the first customers to use a severe weather warning system developed by the Maryland weather information company AWS Convergence Technologies Inc. - better known by its WeatherBug brand.

The new service, which is being rolled out this week, was inspired largely by Baltimore's 2004 water taxi tragedy, when a powerful gust flipped over a water taxi in the Inner Harbor, killing five people.

"We really want to make a difference," said WeatherBug's president and chief executive officer, Robert Marshall. "There are really more and more deaths, it seems, by severe weather, and we want to eliminate those."

It's a tall order, but the 13-year-old Germantown company has already grown from a startup founded by two twentysomethings into a multimillion-dollar company with 230 employees.

When Marshall and Chris Sloop, chief technology officer, began WeatherBug - with the help of Marshall's mentor Bill Mengel - the plan was to build a system that would monitor chemicals in the air for military or industrial use. But Marshall quickly realized that the monitoring stations could easily be turned into weather stations. That's when his wife, a middle school math teacher, said: "Geez, I'd love to have that for my classroom."

The company began pitching the idea to schools. In some cases, television news stations would donate the equipment, which costs from $10,000 to $15,000 and are tied into WeatherBug's information network, to schools, then use the weather stations' data to report local weather. The company made money by licensing the proprietary data from its network to the TV stations and schools. Schools also subscribe to WeatherBug's curriculum for grades K-12, which teaches subjects from where weather comes from to how a kindergartner can check the weather and use the information to decide what to wear.

Today, WeatherBug has a network of 8,000 weather stations across the nation, most of them at schools. That placement has an important impact, said Keith L. Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society in Boston.

"An awful lot of the problems facing society today are environmental," Seitter said. "Having the general population be more aware of the weather, having them understand aspects of the weather is just a very useful thing. So whether that has these kids grow up to be scientist or meteorologists is secondary to having them to grow up knowing these things are out there."

WeatherBug also makes money from advertising on its WeatherBug.com, a free service offering up-to-the-minute local weather conditions to consumers through their computers or wireless devices. (Users download the application and specify their location.) It charges subscription fees from customers such as television stations, emergency management agencies and energy companies that constantly monitor the weather.

The company is capitalizing on the information gathered by its vast network at a time when severe weather has been making headlines, from heat waves to hurricanes. When Hurricane Katrina hit a year ago, for instance, WeatherBug.com got nearly a billion hits, the company said.

Experts say WeatherBug's blanket of observation stations gives it a competitive edge. The National Weather Service has weather stations around the country (which customers can also access through WeatherBug) but those are traditionally at airports.

"The advantage of having a dense network of observation is that you're getting data at places that are traditionally missed for reports of temperature and wind and things like that," said Jeff Warner, a meteorologist at Pennsylvania State University's Weather Communications department.

The Rev. Thomas Wenndt tapped into that far-reaching network to watch over his flock at his rural church in Green Valley, Ill., in May when violent weather was expected. WeatherBug.com flashed a tornado warning at 6:26 p.m. and the group quickly sought shelter.

"We got the people to the basement as we saw an approaching funnel cloud," Wenndt said in an e-mail.

It was another three minutes before his NOAA Weather Radio gave the alarm, and the township's sirens didn't sound until 6:34 p.m., Wenndt said.

Others also apparently are drawn by WeatherBug's real-time weather data. WeatherBug.com had about 4.8 million average daily viewers in July, according to ComScore Media Metrix. With 778 million page views in July, it was the most-looked-at news and information site last month.

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