2015 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Robert Bunge, Michael Gerber and the Wireless Alerts Team

Saved countless lives by developing a fast and geographically targeted cell phone alert system for weather emergencies such as tornadoes and flash floods.

On July 1, 2013, a tornado obliterated a soccer dome in East Windsor, Connecticut, where 29 children had been playing. Seconds before the tornado struck, a cell phone 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 National Weather Service’s newly implemented Wireless Emergency Alerts system, which sends 90-character emergency messages to the cell phones of those in the path of an approaching hazard.

This fast and geographically targeted system, developed by Robert Bunge, Michael Gerber, Mark Paese and Gregory Zwicker of the Wireless Emergency Alerts Team, has transmitted more than 15,000 warnings since 2012 for the most dangerous types of weather—such as tornados, flash floods and hurricanes—to the cell phones 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 leveraging the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) 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.

The team 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.

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 cell phone 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.

Gerber is a meteorologist and a specialist in how information is disseminated. He played a critical role in making sure the right kind of weather alerts would be available and properly transmitted, and is credited with persuading wireless carriers to make the needed investments that improved geographical targeting.

Paese was instrumental in conceptualizing a commercial mobile alert service which ultimately evolved into the new system, and he handled many of the complicated management issues. Zwicker also was involved with project management as well as the testing and documentation necessary to keep the project going.

Besides the fortuitous warning in Connecticut in 2013, the alert system has proved its worth in many other instances.

In November of 2013, for example, a tornado struck Washington, Illinois, where Daniel Bennett was officiating Sunday services at his church with 600 to 700 people. According to an Associated Press account, Bennett heard the first of two dozen electronic warning tones—text messages from the cell phone alert system—cautioning that a twister was in the area. Bennett stopped the services, ushered everyone to a safe place until the threat passed, and later told the wire service that there was little doubt the warnings helped minimize deaths and injuries throughout the Illinois community.

Under processes and systems that had previously been in place, emergency alerts were more manually intensive and often required information sent by email. Older systems lacked an automated way for specific warning information to target areas of the country 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 cell phones 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.

Bunge said 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. “But we saw the value and the potential impact it would have in saving lives,” said Bunge. “It was a challenge, but it has been rewarding.”