Improving The Warning Process

James Spann
Sep 15, 2016 · 4 min read

I have spent the last two days at a wonderful Integrated Warning Team workshop, hosted by the National Weather Service in Chanhassen, Minnesota. For those not familiar with the “IWT” concept, meteorologists with the media (mostly television) and the National Weather Service gather together with emergency managers to discuss ways of improving severe weather watch/warning dissemination by staying on the same page and improving lines of communication. It also gives us all a chance to get to meet new people, match names with faces, and develop a closer relationship.

Most know I have been extremely frustrated with the current warning process since April 27, 2011, when 252 people in Alabama died during an outbreak of 62 tornadoes. On that dreadful day, the physical science could not have been any better as there were excellent and timely warnings for each tornado. Yet, the death toll was too high, and totally unacceptable. There were some precious people that died that day.

We learned that we have to go beyond physical science, and dive into social science to understand the loss of life during the great outbreak of 2011. And, taking knowledge from social science experts, work together to fix the problem. Clearly, something isn’t working.

In my talk today, I brought up these reasons for the high loss of life…

  • THE SIREN MENTALITY: Why in the world do people think they will hear a magical air raid siren inside their home to let them know a tornado is coming? Sure, you might hear a siren on nice days with blue sky and sunshine when they are being tested, but you have no hope in the middle of the night during a severe thunderstorm. They have never been designed to warn people inside homes, businesses, schools, churches, or any other structure. They reach a limited number of people outside, and that is it. We have to be sure everybody understands this, and move past sirens to two good sources, like a NOAA Weather Radio or reliable smart phone app like WeatherRadio by WDT.
  • LACK OF HELMET USE: In addition to having a reliable way of getting the warning and knowing where you are going, you have to have a readiness kit, and the most important element is a helmet for everybody in the house. Not just kids, but everybody. Batting helmets, bicycle helmets work beautifully. Research done at UAB proves their importance. We must communicate this better to the masses.
  • FALSE ALARMS/CRYING WOLF: We heard it over and over. I hear tornado warnings often, and “nothing ever happens”. The NWS in Birmingham had a false alarm radio of roughly 80 in 2011 (80 percent of tornado warnings were false alarms). This resulted in a “cry wolf” syndrome, and no action when warnings were issued April 27, 2011. The good news is that our friends at the Birmingham NWS office have reduced the FAR to 20 today, a remarkable improvement. All by going back to basic science. We need to let people around here know that tornado warnings are more important than ever.
  • CONFUSION: Quite frankly, the current National Weather Service WWA (watch, warning, advisory) system is a mess.

I have been doing this 38 years, and still struggle with some of these. If those of us in the weather enterprise struggle, you know the public struggles. There are too many different kinds of watches, warnings, and advisories, and too many colors. Thankfully, the NWS is in the midst of a “hazard simplification” process, seeing your comments and input. A “repair” or “revamp” of the system seems imminent.

But, moving past the “hazsimp” initiative, we have to get emergency managers, television stations, and NWS meteorologists on the same page with a unified, easy to understand message. We might communicate it in a different way, but the message needs to be the same during life threatening weather.

Rogue cable channels and TV stations are developing their own proprietary severe weather indices, and I guess it is a matter of time before they start issuing their own watches and warnings. Call to action statements are dramatically different between TV meteorologists and the NWS in some markets, and the problem seems to be deteriorating.

IWT meetings, like this one in Minnesota, give the opportunity for the weather enterprise to put aside egos, power, pride, and territorial boundaries, and come together to create a simple, unified severe weather message. It is sad to see some markets where TV meteorologists from competing stations won’t even get in the same room together, and refuse to work with the National Weather Service.

I am hoping egos and pride will be replaced by humility, and a spirit of cooperation as we move toward hazard simplification. I choose to be optimistic that most people in the weather enterprise do want to work together, and do want to make the warning process better by sending a simple, unified message. Lives will depend on our success.

James Spann

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AMS certified meteorologist in the media. Host of WeatherBrains.