Imagine your cell phone vibrating with a text message and radar image that warns you to take cover just before a storm hits – no matter where you are.

It could happen sooner than you think.

Today’s switch by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to more site-specific and graphic-ready public warnings is a step toward getting personal severe-weather warnings – sent directly and immediately to your phone, pager or PDA.

While many of us already go on the Web with our wireless devices for news and weather reports – even viewing color Doppler radar graphics of specific areas by ZIP code or city – this would flip the communication around.

In other words: The National Weather Service could find you before the storm does by finding your cell phone signal.

“That’s it exactly,” said Gary Garnet, warning coordination meteorologist at the Weather Service station at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.

“The information and the technology is already in place for a cell phone user – no matter where they are – to be warned that a storm is right on top of them.”

The weather service cell phone connection isn’t happening yet. But it’s only a matter of time, officials said.

On Monday, the Weather Service began issuing its warnings based on latitude and longitude – not on a county-by-county basis as before.

Garnet said it would be up to wireless companies to arrange to capture that information and pass it on to specific customers who happen to be in the danger area.

“Because of the GIS (Global Information System), the wireless companies can easily use our information to find and warn specific phones,” Garnet said. “And it’s free because it’s in the public domain.”

That was news to several wireless providers.

“That sounds very cool,” said Laura Merritt of Verizon Wireless. “I don’t think we’re doing that yet, but it sounds like something we’d love to do.”

After checking with marketing and research sources, Merritt said, “It’s certainly possible with the technology we have.”

Representatives for Sprint and AT&T were equally surprised.

“It’s definitely possible, but I’ve been told we’re not in talks with the National Weather Service at this time,” said Candace Johnson of Sprint.

A spokesman for the NOAA’s national office in Silver Spring, Md., said officials are excited about the possibilities of working with private wireless providers and reaching the public more directly.

“This is really cool stuff,” said spokesman Eli Jacks, a meteorologist. “Imagine the advantage if your car is equipped with GIS and you get an instant message that you’re about to drive into a flash-flood area.”

Officially, NOAA is referring to its new warnings as “storm-based” or by the even less catchy “threat-based polygon warnings.”

Weather Service warnings will now focus on a specific area being threatened, down to the street or by commonly known landmarks such as highways or rivers – reducing the warning area by up to 70 percent.

The advantage is that people will have more confidence in future warnings because of their accuracy.

The change is actually more of a philosophical than scientific or technical change, officials said.

“Weather doesn’t follow geopolitical boundaries,” retired Air Force Brig. Gen. David L. Johnson, director of the NOAA National Weather Service, said in a news release. “Seconds count during tornadoes and flash floods.”

But don’t count on the new system helping you out this winter.

NOAA’s “storm based warnings” won’t be used for snowstorms, Garnet said.

“The average thunderstorm is 10 or 15 miles in diameter, but a winter storm can be several hundred miles across,” he said. “It’s just not practical.

“We’ll just warn everyone when that’s coming our way.”


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