StormCenter takes crisis managers to the eye of the action

Dave Jones is trying to shrink the world, one crisis at a time.

The former TV weatherman wants emergency managers and decision-makers to have simultaneous access to real-time information so they can keep people out of harm's way. And he wants them to be able to swap ideas whether they are standing before a big screen in a command center, hunched over a laptop in a shelter or grasping a tablet while hovering over the scene in a rescue helicopter.

To do that, his eight-employee company, StormCenter Communications Inc., has invented Envirocast Vision, a cloud-based technology that can help federal and state officials orchestrate their response before, during and after catastrophes.

"A lot of bigger companies are telling the federal government that they have the technology, but they don't," Jones said. "It's new, we have it and it's ready to go. We want the federal government to know that small companies can do this."

The government is starting to believe.

Envirocast enables officials with a computer and an Internet connection to build and share maps layered on platforms such as Google Earth with real-time information: weather readings and forecasts, power outages and damage assessments, and the condition of evacuation routes and location of emergency personnel. With the stroke of a stylus or swipe of a finger, participants can take turns leading online briefings and putting new information on the map.

Last year, StormCenter was awarded a Small Business Innovation Research contract through NASA that makes the company the preferred provider of the technology it developed. NASA called Envirocast "unique" and "profoundly valuable to the federal government" in a review.

"That's really huge. It establishes a vehicle that can be used by any federal agency to hire StormCenter and use our technology immediately," Jones said. "It's grabbing the gold ring."

Maryland officials are starting to pay attention, too. StormCenter received the 2012 Incubator Company of the Year award for cyber and homeland security innovations given by state business agencies and private firms. Last August, Gov. Martin O'Malley used StormCenter technology during a news briefing about Hurricane Irene.

Ken Mallette, the new executive director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, recently visited StormCenter's headquarters at the UMBC Research Park and Technology Center in Halethorpe for a demonstration.

"From the old days, when we couldn't do conference calls, to PowerPoint presentations to these collaborative tools — you have to adapt," Mallette said. "You can't ignore the technology. We've gotten to the point, for example, where the equipment in police cars is worth more than the vehicle itself."

As he shops for new technology, Mallette said he is requesting information from a variety of vendors, including StormCenter.

"StormCenter is onto something, and so are other companies," he said. "We want to provide people with the best emergency management tools that we can afford."

Jones, a University of Maryland-trained meteorologist, began fiddling with the Internet in the mid-1990s while working weekends at Channel 4 in Washington. He received a grant from NASA that enabled him to build a weather Web site for the station using the agency's research. An attempt to interest the NBC network failed and, in 1999, Jones left television and started his company.

It wasn't an easy sell. He worked out of his Severna Park home and stayed afloat with loans from friends and family and once on an $80,000 check mistakenly sent by a defense contractor that Jones cashed and then returned — at the end of the month.

"Things happen for a reason," he laughed.

Finally, business picked up. A university here. A state agency there. A grant. A contract.

In 2009, NASA awarded the company a four-year, $1.2 million grant to package its data for state and local governments. The next year, StormCenter worked with the State Department to produce presentations for the United Nations 2010 Climate Change Conference. The National Weather Service awarded the company a $100,000 contract and is testing Envirocast at its proving ground in Kansas City with the hope of developing "the weather service office of the future."

Last September, as two wildfires tore through Bastrop County, just east of the Texas capital of Austin, state and federal weather experts and emergency managers used EnviroCast to scope out evacuation routes, position firefighters and monitor flames whipped by a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico. The fires destroyed 1,600 homes and charred 34,000 acres before they were contained.

Dr. Gordon Wells, program manager at the University of Texas Center for Space Research and an adviser to state emergency officials, said that in a large-scale disaster, it's difficult to make critical decisions quickly, "sometimes only minutes."

"It can lead to a rush to make decisions or a tendency to maintain the same course of action despite increasingly poor results," Wells said. "The ability to share, visualize and discuss information from a variety or sources with individuals at separate locations can help to establish a common response strategy and promote feedback."

Wells said Envirocast also can be used by states during debriefings to share techniques, successes and pitfalls.

"Everyone stands to learn something new through technology-assisted discussions," he said.

StormCenter moved to the UMBC incubator from a small office in Ellicott City in June 2009. Jones said the nurturing environment and assistance — from discounted rents to workshops for beginning corporate officers — has given StormCenter time to hone its business model and product. The company will probably graduate from the incubator next year and move out to make room for another start-up.

He sees a future for his company's technology outside of emergency command centers, perhaps providing geo-information to Wall Street investors and broadcasters.

"We've only begun to scratch the surface. I'd like to stay and grow in Maryland and produce jobs," Jones said. "The state has been good to us. The idea was born here."