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Tuesday, 12 January 2010 12:01

Commercial Weather Company vs. National Weather Service

Written by  MICHAEL R. SMITH
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Commercial Weather Company vs. National Weather Service


Recently, we were asked by a regular contributor of Disaster Recovery Journal why a company would use a commercial weather company versus just using storm warnings from the National Weather Service. It certainly is a valid question that many readers may ask because the answer may not be intuitive.

The answer in a nutshell is this. The National Weather Service is focused on gathering basic meteorological data and using it to issue broad forecasts to the public as a whole. Commercial weather companies work with the same data to provide targeted forecasts for specific clients, taking into account their particular needs and exact locations.

The Background

The National Weather Service provides most of the meteorological infrastructure (weather balloons, hurricane reconnaissance aircraft, radars, weather stations, to cite just a few examples) in the United States. While the private sector does make a significant contribution to that infrastructure (e.g., lightning detection networks), it is accurate to say that it would be nearly impossible to make quality weather forecasts and storm warnings without the data from the National Weather Service.

However, what happens to that raw data varies considerably depending on its intended use.

The National Weather Service

The mission of the U.S. National Weather Service is to protect the lives and property of the public-at-large for every square mile of the United States and its territories. So, they (rightly) have to give the same level of attention to a violent thunderstorm in a remote area of desert in Arizona as they would to a storm in Phoenix because one never knows whether a mobile home or passing motorist could be harmed by that thunderstorm.

While this is exactly what we as citizens expect from our government, it is not an optimal situation for businesses since their operational requirements can vary a great deal from those of the average person.

What a Commercial Weather Company Can Provide

The services provided by a commercial weather company are much more focused and specific. For example,
WeatherData Services, Inc., an AccuWeather company, takes the NWS data stream, combines it with private sector, state government, and corporate meteorological data and processes it in a way that optimizes our meteorologists’ decision-making and allows them to apply it to a specific site.

For a particular business, site-specificity is a valuable point of differentiation.  It enables them to continue to operate normally unless there is a specific threat to their exact location. “False alarm” costs plummet.

This approach improves both the credibility of and the economic value of a storm warning service
through the minimization of false alarms while improving safety when a genuine threat exists.

These benefits are not theoretical.

February 5, 2008: Caterpillar, Inc. factory, Oxford, Mississippi

WeatherData tornado warning issued 22 minutes prior to the arrival of the tornado. Plant destroyed. Government warning? Yes, four minutes after tornado struck plant.

August 16, 2008: Three Rivers, New Mexico, Union Pacific Railroad

WeatherData warning issued for flash flooding. Trains were halted and washouts were found. Government warning for area? None.

February 19, 2009: Thomasville, Georgia, Caterpillar Plant

WeatherData issued a tornado warning at 12:45 a.m. A tornado passed through the area at 1:05 a.m. causing significant damage. Government tornado warning issued at 12:56 a.m., giving 11 minutes less time for sheltering.

March 8, 2009: General Motors plant, Bedford, Indiana.

WeatherData issued tornado warning for the plant at 3:26 p.m. Tornado crossed over the plant at 3:45 p.m. Government warning? Yes, 3:37 p.m., 11 minutes after WeatherData’s.

bigvalley.jpgAugust 1, 2009: Camrose, Canada, Big Blue Valley Jamboree

WeatherData issued a 60 mph wind warning for Navistar in nearby Edmonton 32 minutes before the winds arrived. Government warning issued five minutes before winds struck. Stage collapsed as warning was being announced. One killed and 75 injured.

When combined with the savings through the avoidance of shutdowns due to unnecessary false alarms, the business case for this type of weather risk mitigation is compelling.

Here’s one thing to watch for. There are some commercial weather companies that merely repackage the National Weather Service public warnings into a different format. The issue with that approach is that it does not allow the warnings to be tailored to specific storm criteria (aircraft need to be moved into hangers to protect them from ½” hail, the NWS warns at 1” in many parts of the country) or exact locations. When shopping for a commercial warning service, we suggest you ask them to cite several specific warnings issued for criterion that differ from the NWS and for areas that were not covered by NWS warnings.

This “due diligence” will allow you to insure that you are getting what you believe you are paying for. After all, having the most accurate and specific weather warnings can be a matter of life and death for your patrons, your staff and even your business.

mike-smith.jpg Michael R. Smith, CEO of WeatherData®, is a certified consulting meteorologist and Fellow of the American Meteorological Society. He is the author of “Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather” to be published by Greenleaf May 1.



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