On July 1, 2013, a tornado obliterated a soccer dome in East Windsor, Conn., where 29 children had been playing. Seconds before the tornado struck, a cellphone alert prompted the camp manager to rush the children out of the dome and into an adjacent building, preventing injuries and a possible loss of life.
The warning came from the National Weather Service’s Wireless Emergency Alerts system, which sends 90-character emergency messages to the cellphones of those in the path of an approaching hazard.
This fast and geographically targeted system, developed by Robert Bunge and colleagues from the Wireless Emergency Alerts Team, has transmitted more than 15,000 warnings since 2012 for the most dangerous types of weather— such as tornadoes, flash floods and hurricanes — to the cellphones of millions of people across the United States.
“Citizens can now take immediate action when they receive an alert, saving lives and preventing injury,” said Deirdre Jones, acting director of operational systems at the National Weather Service.
While other weather alert systems have been in operation, the new system of using mobile devices and targeting very precise geographic areas is a significant breakthrough. It involved taking advantage of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System as well as coordinating with the Federal Communications Commission and wireless telecommunication providers, and required changes in the weather service’s internal operations.
Bunge led the technical team, overseeing the software development, the data specialists, the coding, the host servers and other information-technology needs, and helped create a system that ensures the cellphone alerts go to specific geographic locations.
“Bob came into the weather service with the idea of communicating weather information using newer technologies. This is his crowning achievement,” said Jones.
It took a number of years to get the system up and running, and the team had to overcome a number of technical and administrative obstacles, Bunge said.
“But we saw the value and the potential impact it would have in saving lives,” he said. “It was a challenge, but it has been rewarding.”
The weather service team, including Michael Gerber, Mark Paese and Gregory Zwicker, built out the sophisticated technology, protocols and infrastructure needed to extract and transmit the alerts from the weather service’s highly complex warning system. They facilitated the decision-making for the weather alerts to be transmitted, and they oversaw extensive public awareness and educational initiatives to ensure the success of the program.
Besides the fortuitous warning in Connecticut in 2013, the alert system has proved its worth in many other instances.
In March 2015, for example, a tornado struck Sand Spring, Okla., where the alert system prompted the director of a local private school to shepherd some 60 children and adults into the basement. Soon after, the 100-mile-per-hour winds ripped into the school, causing the roof of the gymnasium to collapse. No one was injured because they had the time to find safe shelter, and school leaders cited the alert system for the positive outcome.
Under the processes and systems that had been in place previously, emergency alerts were more manually intensive and often required that information be sent by e-mail. Older systems also lacked an automated way for warnings to target specific areas or locales using cellular providers.
“There was a car alarm syndrome where people were alerted so much that they stopped paying attention because of the irrelevance of the alert,” said Damon Penn, FEMA’s assistant administrator for national continuity programs.
The new wireless alert system structures the information into concise messages and uses geo-targeted data to broadcast those messages over cellphones only in the affected areas. And it all happens quickly.
“This is an extremely powerful public service,” said Andrew Stern, the acting director of the Office of Climate, Water and Weather Services.
This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.