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Unraveling Tornados

Baron Critical Weather Intelligence

On November 15, 1989, a severe thunderstorm intensified near Huntsville, Alabama. Local television meteorologist Bob Baron (HCB, ’68) tracked and reported the storm to the best of his abilities. The system produced a deadly F-4 tornado, and Baron was chilled to learn of its devastation, including the loss of 23 people. “Nobody at the weather service or in the broadcast community was able to identify the tornado before it came through a major portion of the city,” Baron recalls. “The loss of life had a profound impact on me. I felt like I’d failed in my responsibilities.” In the storm’s aftermath, Baron and his colleagues realized that their weather tracking tools were inadequate. Armed with resourcefulness and determination, Baron made a decision: he would make it his mission to develop new storm-tracking tools to safeguard as many people as possible in the future.

BORN TO BROADCAST

Baron discovered broadcasting as a junior in high school when he landed a job at a local radio station. “It really became a passion for me,” he says. “I spent the next few years as a disc jockey on a number of radio stations throughout the South, ending up in Knoxville in 1964.”

He signed up for marketing and communications courses at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and participated in the first SEC marketing competition in 1967 under the supervision of his professor, Herb Howard. “It was a marvelous experience in defining and growing a product,” Baron remembers. “Thanks to Herb, I eventually carried those skills into my own business years later.” Meanwhile, Baron met his wife, Phylis, and by the time he graduated, the couple was expecting their first child. When Bob received a job offer from a radio station in Shreveport, Louisiana, they moved south.

In 1971, he became program director at WKGN in Knoxville. “At the time, it was a rock ‘n’ roll radio station and there was a pretty good battle going between us and WNOX,” he says. “I loved that kind of competition among the stations and the disc jockeys for the best ratings.” Bob’s approach to work combined a drive to succeed with a genuine love for people and a strong sense of fun. He enjoyed participating in publicity stunts, including the first dance on UT’s campus where partners were matched by computer. “It was a dismal failure,” he says, laughing.

Bob took a position as group program director for two Huntsville radio properties in 1975, moving the family again. In 1978, the local television affiliate station asked him to start doing weekend weather reports. He had recently gotten his pilot’s license and taken some aviation weather courses. The morning after his first on-air appearance, a stranger recognized him. “I thought I had the job I wanted working behind the scenes as a program director, but that experience made me realize how much I loved connecting with the audience,” Bob says. “I was hooked on television.”

MISSION TO FORECAST

After several months, Bob transitioned from radio management to full-time television meteorologist. His interest in weather grew as he enrolled in forecasting courses and pursued professional membership in the American Meteorological Society. By the time the F-4 tornado ripped through Huntsville in 1989, Bob had been forecasting and reporting the weather for more than a decade.

“That event hit me hard,” he says. “In its aftermath, we analyzed the data and realized we needed to be able to detect a significant weather event and disseminate specific information about it to those in harm’s way so they could take immediate, appropriate action. This whole process of detection, dissemination, and response has to occur within 10 minutes or you start losing lives.”

Almost immediately, Bob began pursuing his new mission: to develop precise forecasting technology that could save lives in the midst of future tornadoes. He and Phylis started a company, Baron Services, Inc., in their house. “The dining room filled with computers, our home office became the sales department, and since our daughter was away at college, her bedroom served as product development,” says Phylis. A year later, she tripped over a computer while walking through the dining room. “I realized it was time to rent office space.”

Bob continued to work full-time at the television station for the next five years. “At that point, we had two kids in college and were trying to support this fledgling company,” Phylis says. “It took a lot of effort to keep it all going.”

In 1993, the company went commercial and started selling the storm tracker units they had developed. The product, FasTrac, allowed meteorologists to zoom in on a dangerous storm and track its direction and speed, highlighting communities in its path so viewers would know when to take cover.

“That first year, we had six stations as our clients, including WBIR in Knoxville,” says Bob. “The second year, we went from six to 20 clients, then to 60, and it doubled again the next year.” By the mid-1990s, Bob had left broadcasting to devote his full energy to the company, which continued to grow.

STORM TRACKING SUCCESS

FasTrack required LIVE digital radar, which only a fraction of television stations had at the time, and the company quickly outgrew its market. “We were forced into the radar market,” says Bob. “Around 1995, we decided to go ahead and start building our own.” Over the years, the breadth of Baron’s service for television stations has continued to expand. “We developed VIPIR, an analysis tool that gives meteorologists instant identification of potentially dangerous storms in 3-D,” Bob says. “And we were one of the first companies to work with what’s called dual polarity radar, which sends out both horizontal and vertical signals, allowing meteorologists to see the shape and size of precipitation in the air.”

Today, Baron Critical Weather Intelligence represents more than 90 percent of weather radar systems in the United States and is expanding that reach abroad. The company has developed XM WX weather systems for aircraft, ships, and emergency medical units using satellite radio technology. “Within a couple of years, it was an incredible success,” he says. “It was a needed product, and we were credited with saving lives when the accident rate for aircraft went down.”
In 2011, Huntsville experienced another tornado outbreak. “We had four F-4s on the ground at the same time,” Bob says. “It became the worst super outbreak we’ve ever seen, but we were prepared. It did my heart good to see the progress we’d made in the previous 20 years.”

Following the 2011 storms, Baron developed an app that could deliver instant weather warnings to mobile phones. “We then donated our SafTNet automated app to all state residents, as well as systems to emergency management offices in all 67 counties in Alabama,” says Bob. “They literally can draw a circle around an area and send an additional warning to those inside it.” Since its inception in 2012, the weather app has delivered approximately 33 million alerts to Alabamans in the path of dangerous weather.

Longtime friend Bill Barger attributes Bob’s success in business to his determination. “He’s able to set his sights on something only he sees and follow it until it becomes successful.”
Donna Davis, a family friend, agrees. “After the ’89 tornado, it became his passion to never let anyone die again because they didn’t know to get to safety,” she says. “He made that his focus and surrounded himself with smart people who could make it happen. He has a phenomenal amount of energy and a wonderful wife who could step into the business and really support him and his ideas, even when it was hard.”
Another family member, Bob Jr., stepped into the business 28 years ago and has been working with his father ever since.

Despite the company’s phenomenal success, Bob and Phylis draw the most satisfaction from hearing about tragedies averted. “Those stories touch all of us,” says Bob. “Knowing that we’ve saved lives is the best return for all our work.”

This year, Bob established what he sees as a legacy project, the Baron Critical Weather Institute. A not-for-profit organization, the institute will provide world-class weather sensor instrumentation to the Tennessee Valley and the state of Alabama and create a hands-on exhibit at the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville to educate the public about weather forecasting technologies. “The institute’s goal is to make our region a hub for transportation and weather research and development,” Bob says. “With its diverse climate and topography, I believe this is the perfect place for it.”

DUAL POLARITY RADAR

Traditional radar sends out pulses of horizontally polarized electromagnetic wave fields, which make contact with atmospheric particles such as snow, sleet, or rain. The signals bounce off the particles and return to their source, where a computer analyzes the results. Basic radar only reveals the horizontal dimension of the particles, failing to give meteorologists a full picture of what’s in the atmosphere.

Dual polarity radar sends out both vertical and horizontal signals, creating a two-dimensional picture of the particles. “By alternating the signals and getting both a horizontal and vertical return, you can start seeing the shape of the objects in the air,” Bob explains. “We were one of the first companies to work with this type of radar.” Additionally, research has shown dual-polarization has promising implications in detecting tornadic debris ball signatures, a clear indication of a tornado on the ground.

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