Wisconsin Companies Prepare for Disaster Warnings

By GEORGE HESSELBERG | June 13, 2011

When the object is to beat a disaster to its target, sometimes bells and whistles are necessary. Also, pop-ups, blinking lights, vibrations, sirens, buzzing, digital displays, pages, Facebook and Twitter tickles, beeping, calm voices, even reversing the escalator from up to down.

Two Madison-based companies, Singlewire and Weather Central, are working worldwide to provide advance notice – sometimes only seconds – of disasters and alerts of dangerous conditions.

“What we have,” said Ken Bywaters, vice president of Madison-based Singlewire Software, “is a software-based notification system that can alert people, very quickly, and on a very large scale.”

Think hurricane. Tsunami. Earthquake. Bomb scare. Sandstorm. Or tornadoes, which this season have turned traditional tornado alleys into natural disaster freeways.

Singlewire’s product, a “mass notification platform,” is called InformaCast, a flexible system that can even be used by government public safety agencies.

While Singlewire enters from the computer software development side, Weather Central is well positioned to provide the basic disaster information, with its meteorology services fitting into an information delivery system.

“We’re playing in the same space,” said Steven Smedberg, a Weather Central spokesman.

It’s not an instant warning system, for example, but Weather Central supplies China and the Chinese Meteorological Agency, Huafeng, with weather-related graphics and warnings, and also has a worldwide email alert of forecast conditions, Smedberg said.

“In China, weather forecasting is still very controlled in that the agency wants to make sure the forecast information meets with their approval. All of the TV weather forecasts in China are coming through our equipment. We hope to get the same capability to do mobile alerts in China that we have here, and we’re working with (Huafeng) to deploy that,” Smedberg said.

Weather Central provided tornado advance information via telephone calls to American Family Insurance policyholders in Missouri, he said.

“We also have services where users can sign up through a television station’s website to get alerts through email or text messages based on where they register their home,” he said.

The company has niche alerts, too, and is working with an oil company in the Middle East to generate sandstorm alerts, a devastating phenomenon in that industry.

Singlewire has been single-minded in its goal of creating notification system software that is what Bywaters calls “future proof.”

Predictably, following a disaster such as the tsunami in Japan in March or the tornadoes in Missouri, the company gets inquiries from entities that, months earlier, were not interested in advance alert systems.

As Bywaters noted wryly, advance notification is not something that is usually budgeted for ahead of time.

But the life-saving effect of advance warnings were obvious in those instances. Japan got 12 hours of warning, and in Missouri, there was a 20-minute notice.

“In our country, we are not to the level of adopting notification such as they had in Japan,” Bywaters said.

“But there are things that we are working on, setting up regional centers. The problem is not a technical problem, it is a logistical problem. There have to be people in a room saying we will own this notification and we will be the ones to send it.”

In Honolulu, Singlewire has 25 customers, including banks, schools and hospitals. The island has unique potential disasters: frequent flash floods, tsunamis and storms, each of which provide a small warning window.

“All the customers are independent of one another; everyone has to notify their own constituents,” Bywaters said. “We are talking about pulling them all together, a way to alert everyone in that area using multiple modes.”

Even tourists may get pulled in. Singlewire is floating an idea among hotels in Hawaii in which customers would register their cellphone numbers when they check in and be alerted of a potential emergency.

As for cost, rough estimates for a Singlewire system are a one-time cost of $25 per person for notifications if they’re sitting in their office (computer, email, phone, loudspeaker, Facebook, Twitter) and anywhere from $1 to $5 per person per year for notifications if they’re out of the office (voice call and text message to a mobile phone), he said.

But no matter how much warning a person gets, Bywaters said, the important thing is that people take weather and disaster warnings seriously.

“You want people to know this means business, like if your mom calls you by your full name, including your middle name, means business,” Bywaters said.

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