How a weather tragedy led to creation of Huntsville man’s tornado tracking company

This story first appeared in the Lede, a digital news publication delivered to our subscribers every morning. Go here to subscribe.

Bob Barron is a former TV meteorologist at Channel 31 and Channel 48 in Huntsville who later founded Baron Weather Services and Baron Critical Weather Institute.

A recent inductee into the Alabama Business Hall of Fame, he recently participated in a question-and-answer session with The Lede, discussing advances in weather technology and activities of the Baron Critical Weather Institute.

How much has weather forecasting changed since your days with Channel 31 and Channel 48?

The biggest changes are computers and big data coming together and the ability to do analysis of both real time and forecasts of weather. When I first started, which was in the late ‘70s, we were using wall maps and grease pencils. There was no such thing as a (weather) computer.

Once we started getting computer data, like satellite imagery, it was probably the first real digital data that we had. It made a huge difference because we were getting low resolution imagery until the digital satellite showed up. Then there was a really huge movement to computers for weather. From that came a lot of R&D, research that we did with real time radar with NEXRAD radar to understand fully what was being depicted.

What led you to get out of TV meteorology and start your own company?

It was the Nov. 15, 1989, tornado. I was on the air. It came without warning. Nobody knew it was coming. Because of that, we lost 23 people that day. So, I formed the company two months after the tornado with a focus on how we can do better.

I thought we had all of the weather tools at our command to keep people safe. And it turned out we really just had weather gadgets. That day, the only thing that really worked was a tap of a NASA R&D lightning network.

I was able to get a NASA technology transfer grant. This was probably in ‘87 to tap that R&D lightning network. Although it didn’t tell me there was a tornado, it did tell me where the heart of the storm was. And it was the only really accurate tool that I had that day.

So, it started with the lightning detection. We built our own mapping. Eventually, we added live radar. We were able to tap the National Weather Service radar and got live radar on the screen. And then in ‘92, I added storm tracking, being able to click on the storm, indicate a direction and speed for that storm and have the computer pick out all of the communities that would be at risk over the next 10 minutes and post them with a time of storm arrival. That was just done in conjunction with my being at the television station to begin with. And then we realized we had a tool that others could use.

In ‘93, we sold six systems that had the ability to track lightning and to track dangerous storms. By ‘96, the company was getting so big that I had to withdraw from television. I couldn’t do both.

You’ve mentioned some of it, but what kind of services and technology does your company offer communities?

We have a substantial number of patents on storm tracking. One of our verticals is broadcast television. We do the displays. We provide the data. And also the storm tracking tools for probably a couple of hundred television stations.

The other is radar. In order for the storm tracking to work, we had to have live radar. There were a limited number there, so it kind of forced us into the radar business. And we’ve become a major manufacturer of doppler radars in the world. We dominate here in the United States. I would say the percentage of radars that are Baron in the U.S. is probably in excess of 90%.

We’re one of the players internationally. We continue to build out our international portfolio. As of 2003, we partnered with XM satellite radio to deliver aviation type data to the cockpits of aircraft, marine data to the helms of boats and specialized data feed to emergency management for mobile operations. That is a major portion of what we do.

Our fourth vertical is we take this data and put it in a bunch of different forms and then work cooperatively with other companies that either need to use data or want to display data.

Can you talk about the activities of the Baron Critical Weather Institute?

That institute has become my passion since retiring as CEO of Baron Weather. That institute is focused on dulling out instrumentation statewide to serve everybody.

We’re committed to putting a sensor and a cam in every county in the state, so that we have a statewide weather-net. We have had substantial support from a number of entities, emergency management, Alabama DOT and Alabama Power, as well Alabama Emergency Management.

With our various partners, we are up to about half of the counties having sensors and less than that having cameras. A couple of counties, Madison and Etowah, have what I call a dense sensor net of 10 cameras. We continue to build out for the benefit of the citizenry.

North Alabama has been impacted by tornado outbreaks in 1973 and 2011, and you mentioned the Huntsville tornado in 1989. How prepared to do you feel communities are in north Alabama now?

Much, much more. 1973 is what we refer to as the super-outbreak of tornadoes. There was something like 149 tornadoes in a two-day period. And that was eclipsed in 2011. It was massively larger than the outbreak of 1973.

I was like most paying very close attention and was very impressed with how all of the stations here in the market handled the data, getting information to the public, getting good information to the public and working cooperatively with the weather service and emergency management to do the absolute best under the worst possible conditions.

And the difference between 2011 and 1989 was pretty dramatic. They were spot on.

The biggest challenge I saw in 2011 was that there were several waves. There were two major waves of tornadoes. And the first wave came through and knocked out a lot of communications. The emergency operations were working well, but there were a lot of people who weren’t getting information because cell phones were out or power was out. That’s an area that still needs to be worked on.

Scott Turner reports from Huntsville for The Lede.

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