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Watching the Skies

Bob Baron's turn to meteorology as a second career led to storm tracking, providing real-time weather warnings to those in the path of the storm.

Photo by Dennis Keim

His career-military father always hoped Bob Baron would become a doctor. But instead of attending medical school, Baron’s career journey led him to save lives in a
different way — by helping people avoid dangerous weather events.

Baron landed his first real job as a high school junior, working as a disc jockey at a New Mexico radio station. After that, his father’s hopes that he would become a doctor fell flat. “I fell in love with broadcasting,” Baron says. And after a year in the pre-med program at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Baron left school for a full-time radio job in Wetumpka. That step, leading to a 20-year career in radio broadcasting, was also the first step toward meteorology.

While working at a Knoxville radio station in the 1960s, Baron decided to go back to college and completed a degree in broadcast journalism at the University of Tennessee. In 1975, he moved to Huntsville as the program director for WAAY TV’s radio properties. Within a year, WAAY had him appearing as a moderator on the televised news and as co-host of the mid-day show. When the station needed a weekend meteorologist, Baron agreed to take the position and “all of a sudden, I became hooked with television,” he says.

Eventually, by 1982, Baron was working as the full-time program director during the day and the full-time meteorologist at night. “After a few months, I told them I could do one or the other, but not both,” Baron says. He agreed to go back to school again and become certified as a professional meteorologist, and “all of a sudden, I fell into career number two, as a TV meteorologist. That was my life up through 1989.”

By the late 1980s, Baron was working as chief meteorologist at WAFF, Huntsville’s NBC affiliate. At nearby Marshall Space Flight Center, meanwhile, NASA engineers had developed a lightning detection and location network that provided real-time information. Baron struck a deal with the center, allowing him access to the data so he could refine it and share it. That, in turn, required real-time display software.

Without leaving WAFF, he formed Baron Services Inc. to commercialize the system and acquired his first two clients, Huntsville Utilities and Thiokol Inc., a local rocket manufacturer. “The utility company was very interested in where lightning was striking because they could position their trucks so that they followed the storm, strike by strike, and could keep up with any damage to their lines,” Baron says. “Thiokol was packing solid fuel for rockets and they were also interested in where lightning was striking for safety reasons.”

In 1989, a “horrendous” tornado came through Huntsville, killing 21 people, injuring many others and causing extensive property damage, Baron says. No warnings were issued prior to the storm—a fact that kept Baron awake at night. “I learned that all the things that I thought were weather tools were just gadgets; they were no help,” he says. “There was a huge amount of confusion in the wake of the storm. No one could tell what was a tornado and what wasn’t, and we definitely didn’t get the word out to those in harm’s way.”

On the afternoon of the 1989 tornado, “the only thing that was accurate was the lightning detection software,” Baron says. That was a start, and Baron was determined to use that technology to develop more accurate weather prediction and warning equipment. He started with the lightning detection display and learned how to add live radar.

In 1992, because Baron and his team were able to zoom in and follow storms closely, they developed a tool to see where a storm was going in the next 15 minutes based on its direction and speed. That tool, known as “storm tracking,” is now a familiar sight on every TV news station during a storm, usually appearing as a box with a list of towns or communities and what time the severe weather is expected to reach each area. Around the same time, Baron Services also developed the Automated Weather Crawl—text that automatically moves across the bottom of a TV screen to warn viewers of approaching severe weather.

“That ability to identify significant weather and who it will impact, with a high degree of precision, was what we started with and what we continue to do,” Baron says. In 1993, WAAY Channel 31, Huntsville’s ABC affiliate, purchased Baron Service’s storm tracking capability, the automated weather crawl, and Baron’s meteorologist contract. But by 1996, Baron Services was taking so much of his time that Baron left TV altogether.

As president and CEO of Baron Services, he has helped make storm-tracking capabilities standard across the broadcast community. His team also has led broadcast stations to transition from analog radars to modern digital radars, and has worked to develop new dual-polarity technology, which provides more much accurate radar-based rainfall measurements, and the ability to classify precipitation as rain, snow or hail. The National Weather Service recently commissioned Baron Services to upgrade all of the organization’s outdated Nexrads (next-generation radars) to dual polarization capability.

In addition to securing the largest radar contract in the United States, Baron Services is increasingly involved in international business. The group installed an entire weather service in the countries of Romania and Brunei, including radar installation, information distribution to government agencies and cell phone alert systems. The company also developed XM Weather, a satellite weather service that provides continuously updated graphical weather information for pilots, boaters and emergency responders who otherwise may be unable to receive weather updates.

And following the outbreak of tornadoes last April 27, Baron Services has offered Saf-T-Net at no charge to Alabama residents. This service allows residents to register up to four different addresses and receive notifications via text or email if storms are approaching. “After the tornadoes came through last year, I saw the difference in covering tornadoes that has been made since 20 years ago,” Baron says. “The technology provided ongoing information. But there are still important lines of communication that need to be added. We hope Saf-T-Net will help close some of those holes.”

To register for Saf-T-Net alerts, visit www.AlabamaSafTNet.com.

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.

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