Tele­phone weather fore­casts un­dergo a re­birth af­ter fall­ing out of fash­ion

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY JA­SON SAMENOW

Youmay have thought the days of dial­ing your phone to get a weather fore­cast were dead. But this old-fash­ioned way of know­ing whether it will rain or snow is experiencing some­thing of a re­nais­sance.

“Tele­phone weather has re­bounded,” says Howard Phoe­bus, a fore­caster with D.C. Weather Ser­vices, a group of lo­cal me­te­o­rol­o­gists and weather hob­by­ists that has pro­vided phone-based pre­dic­tions since the late 1980s. They be­gan of­fer­ing fore­casts on the mem­o­rable num­ber WE61212 (936-1212) and now can be heard at 202-589-1212.

Phoe­bus says the call vol­ume to his ser­vice in­creased steadily over the past few years.

Be­fore there was the In­ter­net, one of the few places you could get cur­rent weather up­dates, with­out wait­ing for the tele­vi­sion news, was by phone. Many Wash­ing­to­ni­ans would dial 936-1212, some­times mul­ti­ple times a day, to ac­cess the ser­vice hosted by Ver­i­zon (and its pre­de­ces­sors).

Phoe­bus and seven col­leagues, in­clud­ing Keith Allen, the group’s leader, be­came house­hold names.

But in 2011, when real-time weather in­for­ma­tion had be­come avail­able on so many dif­fer­ent elec­tronic plat­forms, Ver­i­zon de­cided to pull the plug on its long-stand­ing ser­vice.

Many peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly older adults who had for years re­lied on the dial-a-fore­cast ser­vice, protested ve­he­mently.

Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist John Kelly said that af­ter re­port­ing the news that Ver­i­zon was ter­mi­nat­ing the ser­vice, he re­ceived hun­dreds of com­plaints. But Ver­i­zon looked the other way.

“We thought our days were num­bered,” Phoe­bus says.

Still, the ser­vice wasn’t en­tirely ka­put and landed at a new home. Tele­com­pute, a lo­cal com­pany that pro­vides recorded tele­phone in­for­ma­tion in mar­kets around the coun­try, adopted it. Once again fea­tur­ing fore­casts from the likes of Phoe­bus of D.C. Weather Ser­vices, Tele­com­pute has been con­tin­u­ously pro­vid­ing recorded weather fore­casts at 202-589-1212.

The Metropoli­tan Coun­cil of Gov­ern­ments and Clean Air Part­ners have spon­sored the phone fore­casts, which lead off with in­for­ma­tion about the day’s air qual­ity and then fea­ture the weather out­look for the next sev­eral days.

But the move from the sticky WE6-1212 num­ber, etched in the minds of loyal callers for decades, to a new, lit­tle-pub­li­cized num­ber gut­ted call vol­ume. In its fi­nal days with Ver­i­zon, Phoe­bus says, the ser­vice was re­ceiv­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of calls per day. When it moved to 202-5891212, the traf­fic dropped to 2,500 calls per day.

War­ren Miller, the pres­i­dent of Tele­com­pute, says he has tried un­suc­cess­fully to ob­tain the mag­i­cal 936-1212 num­ber from Ver­i­zon. “They claim they can’t re­lease the num­ber be­cause it’s part of a type of ser­vice that they’re still op­er­at­ing,” Miller said. But dial 936-1212 and you hear only: “We’re sorry. Your call can­not be com­pleted as di­aled. Please check the num­ber and dial again. Thank you.”

Ver­i­zon’s lack of sup­port notwith­stand­ing, the new ser­vice’s call vol­ume has slowly grown, via word of mouth.

“We have got­ten [the vol­ume] up to 15,000-20,000 on a daily ba­sis when weather is tran­quil,” Phoe­bus says.

He says his ser­vice pro­vides a niche for peo­ple rolling out of bed in the morn­ing who want a has­sle-free way to get a fore­cast more de­tailed than on a dig­i­tal dis­play.

“Those early-morn­ing callers are find­ing that this is the best and quick­est method to get good weather,” he says. “Be­cause those callers like the morn­ing fore­casts, they call again later in the day.”

Pepco re­cently signed on as a spon­sor of the phone ser­vice as part of a cam­paign that pro­motes storm pre­pared­ness. It hopes to drive peo­ple to its Web site for storm-readi­ness in­for­ma­tion and to down­load its free mo­bile app. “We wanted to use a phone ser­vice as a com­ple­ment to plac­ing ads on three popular weather Web sites,” says Michael Herbs, se­nior manager for ad­ver­tis­ing at Pepco.

Phoe­bus sees the Pepco spon­sor­ship as val­i­da­tion of the ser­vice and also po­si­tion­ing it for fu­ture growth.

“With the up­surge in call vol­ume we’ve been able to cre­ate through the Coun­cil of Gov­ern­ments and word of mouth alone, and with Pepco now get­ting on board, our hope is that we can get back to the day of hun­dreds of thou­sands phone calls per day,” Phoe­bus says.

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