The Warning Process Must Get Better

| June 8, 2011 @ 9:03 pm | 144 Replies

Now that I have had a chance to catch by breath after the historic April 27 tornado outbreak across Alabama, time to jot down a few important thoughts…

*I firmly believe apathy and complacency due to a high false alarm ratio over the years led to inaction in many cases that could have cost lives.

The FAR (false alarm ratio) for many NWS offices when it comes to tornado warnings is in the 80-90 percent category. I say this is simply not acceptable. Sure, the POD is excellent (probability of detection), but if most of the warnings are bad, then what good is a high POD?

I ask the NWS to consider stopping the use of tornado warnings when trying to catch small spin-ups within a squall line (or QLCS). These tornadoes rarely last more than a few minutes, and are next to impossible to detect in advance. And, in most cases, the greatest damage from a QLCS is from widespread damaging straight line winds, not tornadoes.

These kind of warnings force us to go on the air for 40-45 minutes, often after tornado signature has vanished from the radar. Sirens sound, the NOAA Weather Alarm goes off, severe weather apps on smart phones alert users. Getting these kind of warnings over and over and over again totally create an ocean of people that won’t be paying attention when a real tornado emergency is in progress.

I heard it over and over as people described their April 27 experience. “I hear those sirens all the time, and nothing ever happens”. The cry wolf syndrome is very real, and very dangerous.

*Too many people believe they should hear a siren before a tornado strikes.

I think the time has come to take them down. Sirens are not efficient, reach a limited number of people, and can’t be heard in most homes, schools, and businesses. And, in most counties, the sirens don’t sound only in the warned polygon, they sound county wide. In some cases, this means you are hearing a siren when the actual tornado threat is over 40 miles away.

Sirens were born during the Cold War with the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s… their time has come and gone. If the sirens are taken down, then you KNOW you won’t hear one next time there is a tornado threat.

Most southerners still have the “siren mentality”, and that no doubt killed people April 27.

*NOAA Weather Radio must be upgraded to the polygon warning system soon, or it will become obsolete.

Sure, it is the best thing we have now, and I still promote it heavily. But, why hasn’t NOAA upgraded their system so the receiver manufacturers can produce models with GPS included so they sound only when the receiver is a in a warning polygon? If something doesn’t change soon, the private sector will be the ones that push the warning process into the new technological era.

The best model I see now for the future warning device is the WeatherRadio app from the iMap weather guys. If you are in a polygon, you get the notification on your smart phone. If you are not, nothing happens. it works beautifully.

*TV stations must stream their long form tornado coverage in a way that is accessible to all portable devices, not just some of them. And, make the stream easy to find either via a web page or app.

Why in the world are so many TV stations streaming only in Flash or Windows Media format? Yeah, maybe I am an Apple fan boy, but there are 200 million iOS devices in the world, and if you don’t offer an HTML5/H.264 stream that plays with iPhones, iPads, and iPods, you are telling those 200 million people you are not interested in serving them or providing emergency weather information to them.

We use uStream for this very reason… it is universal, and can be viewed on ANY smart phone, Android, iPhone, whatever. I can’t tell you how many people sent me notes letting me know that they were watching us in their tornado safe place via uStream. And, thousands had no commercial power after the morning storms April 27, and the smart phone/uStream method was the only way their could see our live coverage. A lifeline for so many.

*Social media is not a time waster or a novelty, it is a lifeline during severe weather, and must be used by TV meteorologists.

Lives were saved April 27 by pushing tornado information to the masses through Facebook and Twitter. Seems like many old school news directors think this stuff is for high schoolers. How wrong is that; these social media services are mainstream and reaches across all demographics.

And, you just can’t throw up a Twitter or Facebook account and expect to be successful. It takes years of conversation and interaction with followers to grow your numbers and reach critical mass.

Broadcasting is now a conversation. The people that follow you on Facebook and Twitter aren’t idiots… they are our friends that can offer a treasure trove of information during active weather and any kind of breaking news event. They follow you, you follow them. Most media people just don’t get it.

*When there is a genuine tornado emergency, TV stations must have the guts to blow off regular programming and go with wall to wall weather coverage. No matter what the regularly scheduled program happens to be.

I was appalled to see a TV station in a top ten market opting to air the season finale with “Dancing With The Stars” when a tornado warning was up for the two major counties in the metro area this spring. No guts, no glory. If you can handle a little email from the haters, you don’t need to be in this business. People have a long memory, and if you aren’t there for them, they will go somewhere else.

*TV meteorologists need to get on the key wall and look their audience in the eye.

Too many of us are now hovering around computers and radar screens, off camera. I have noticed some stations go for almost an hour or so before you even get a glimpse of who is speaking. I understand the need to be looking at a computer screen, but get it out in front of the key wall so you can go face to face with your audience. There is no substitute for this; it is a key element of the communication process during a tornado emergency.

I could go on and on… but one more thing. Despite my long tenure here, I still learn something after every severe weather event. Some things worked, others didn’t. Learn from your mistakes and don’t do them again… and always strive to get better.

The media landscape is changing like a meteor streaking through the might. We must adapt to the changes, and provide the weather information the audience wants and needs on their time schedule and at their convenience. You see, the power has shifted from the TV newsrooms to the people, which is an exciting opportunity for us to personally serve the masses. You take care of the customer, which is your viewer, and they will be faithful.

I doubt if I see another April 27 on my watch, but there will be more severe weather days, hurricanes, snow storms, and blizzards. We must strive to be better at what we do while learning to have a servant’s heart!


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About the Author ()

James Spann is one of the most recognized and trusted television meteorologists in the industry. He holds the AMS CCM designation and television seals from the AMS and NWA. He is a past winner of the Broadcast Meteorologist of the Year from both professional organizations.

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