The Warning Process Must Get Better

| June 8, 2011 @ 9:03 pm | 191 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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Category: Hodgepodge

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.

Comments (191)

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  1. Jeff Houston says:

    Absolutely the warning process must get better. Having the weather radio go off at 2am for a storm 30 miles from here sometimes results in the radio being turned off.

    I would like to thank 33/40 for all of the skycams. I talked to many people in Pleasant Grove who said they normally do not take the storms very serious, but when they saw the tornado in Tuscaloosa, they knew this was different. That camera saved a lot of people in Tuscaloosa all the way to I-65. I don’t know if the cameras were something you specifically pushed for or not, but they no doubt saved lives.

  2. Keith says:

    I pretty much agree with that entire article. The cry wolf syndrome is going to kill more and more people if the warning process doesn’t get better. Thanks for all you and the 33/40 team do for us weather geeks.

  3. Kim says:

    You are the man, James spann! I always watch you! If there is badweather I want to see spann with you sleeves pushed up and jacket removed!!! I was using my iPhone that night. Praise God, I was in mccalla and safe, but glued to you. I read this website probably 10 times a day! Keep up the work!!!!

  4. Cybrdragon says:

    Very thoughtful and thorough analysis of the current situation. Hopefully some of your suggestions will be implemented by many.

  5. Alison M says:

    Hear, hear!

    I’m WITH you!

  6. Jackson says:

    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)

    Could not agree more. During that last outbreak a week or two ago, Illinois and Indiana must have had 15 or more counties under a tornado warning all at the same time.

  7. Sheila McClurg says:

    James I am so proud to be able to watch your coverage when bad weather is in Alabama. We live in Jacksonville and when the weather starts to look bad the first thing I do is to see if you are on the air. If you are there, that is where I will be until you tell me its all right.We have family members and all five grand kids right here next to us so I am the guard for the weather.During the storms we had to leave and stay in a motel but I had my Android phone tuned to you. Even when there was no power we could still watch what was going on. I agree the weather needs to move into the 21st century.
    Thank you,
    Sheila age 57

  8. Karen Logan says:

    I’m retired and on a fixed income. I don’t have a smartphone, nor do I have a weather radio. I can’t afford either of these. So I depend on the computer or the tv to tell me when and where watches and warnings are happening. I am also hearing impaired so if I’m not wearing my hearing aid, I might not hear the sirens. I just have to remain super vigilant when the bad weather predicted. Thank you for all you do to help us. This is a great article.

  9. townrunner says:

    James, 99% I agree with and you are my #1 source. I am 100% for forgetting about the small spin-ups. EF-2+ is what I’m worried about. But I have to say I have talked to people that day whose lives were probably saved by sirens. I spoke to some poultry farmers in Cullman that had no clue of a warning besides the sirens. In a perfect world everyone would log on to the Blog and ABC 33/40. But that just can’t happen. Before we can take them down, there would have to be mass education. And, unfortunately, I believe that is just something the general public will not do (survival of the fittest maybe?). I never listen for a siren, can’t hear them in my home (if asleep) or place of work anyway. And I live and work in the city of Cullman! WEATHERCALL, is my choice and it is fantastic. I really only need it when I’m asleep because I consider myself as one of the “educated” general public. But taking them down would only put more people at danger when the real thing hits. Especially now. I believe we have their attention.

  10. SPridmore says:

    Best article I’ve read all year!

  11. Nicholas says:

    I agree completely, but there are a few things that could be added here.

    The biggest problem I see is this EAS System which runs a “Required Weekly Test” on just about every cable channel once a week. Is there any visual proof to show that this was used at all during this event. It was not used at all here in my hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, where we had an EF4 just a 10 minute drive south of town, and an EF5 tornado about a 25 minute drive north of town.

    If the EAS system is not going to be used the way it’s designed, then it should be scrapped. When people’s lives are at risk, who cares what the mid-afternoon talk shows are talking about, or who is winning the Cubs game, or how the markets closed. In my opinion, the EAS system should have been used to cut to local network programming regarding the outbreak. ABC 33/40, CBS42, and Fox 6 all did great work, while here in Meridian we only had one source, and that’s our local affiliate who has very limited resources when compared to you guys.

    I may be barking up a tree that’s forbidden in the TV business, but I believe it’s something to think about. It’s very possible that someone out there was watching SportsCenter on ESPN when the tornado went through Tuscaloosa, and if EAS would have cut to 33/40 programming, that person would still be here today.

  12. Alan in Bear Creek says:

    James, you and I have known each other through Amateur Radio a long time and while I agree with you the vast majority of the time, I have to take issue with something you seemingly will not address publicly. That is the failure of the NOAA weather alert system on the 27th of April (forget the failure a week before that). While everything you mentioned are great ideas and would help, wouldn’t it be logical to have the current system work FIRST?? How in the world would you expect them to do what you suggest when they can not even get the regular WX radio alerts to work?? The siren was all we had up here that day. Luckily they worked. THAT is extremely sad to say isn’t it? No weather radio, local stations playing music and no electricity. Nothing but those God awful sirens. James, I doubt any of those sirens caused any of the scores of deaths up here in the Marion/Franklin County areas the 27th but I firmly believe the failure of the NOAA Weather Alert system DID. I have ham friends in Hamilton that only found out about the numerous tornado warnings because of those sirens. Same for Phil Campbell. We lived something up here that in the past we only saw on television James. And as I previously mentioned, friends in Phil Campbell who died with a WX Alert Radio in their living room. I am frankly disappointed in you for not addressing the weather alert failure directly. For years James, you have been the voice for everyone having a working WX Alert Radio in their homes. Why not the outcry when they fail? Not once BUT two weeks in a row?

  13. C Bourn says:

    James, this is an insightful article.

    Until the NWS goes to the polygon warnings, I think the sirens need to stay in service. For me, they make me check the TV to see if we will be in harm’s way. And, they will wake me up where we live.

    I asked for a weather radio about 5 years ago, but couldn’t stand to keep it on because the dang thing went off all the time even when the weather would not have affected us.

    As for all TV stations staying on full time during tornado warnings as they are issued now, it seems redundant to me. However, you don’t know whose TV can pick up which (now digital) stations when the cable or satellite is out. The worst part of the mandatory switch to digital was the loss of TV being able to be picked up on a radio.

    The amount of amateur video of the April 27 storms makes you realize that many, many people were not in a safe place and did not fully appreciate the danger they were in. I find that incredibly amazing that they didn’t. We live in a tornado alley, for Pete’s sake.

    Our family made the switch to Apple about 5 years ago and I do appreciate being able to pick up 33/40. We were out of town on the 27th, but I watched your broadcast live that afternoon.

  14. ChadJ says:

    QLCS spin up tornadoes killed many people during the early morning hours of the 27th including several EF3s and EF2s. I guess the NWS should stop warning for them, great idea. Simple James, if you don’t like or agree with the NWS warning, don’t go wall-to-wall.

  15. KYLE says:

    Sirens have a purpose, they are for outside warning and thats it. To me an education program would be better than taking them all down, especially since they seemed to have save a great many lives that day. I mean i cant even get my mom to answer her cell phone when she is outside, cause she says she cant hear it, much less hear a txt message or alert come in. Keep them and educate about them.

  16. thunder says:


    Your article was very well thought out. I do agree that the warning system must get better. Counties are large are sometimes parts of the county that needs to be warned is very small. For instance, in the last couple of years in Jefferson County we have had multiple situations for a tornado warning that was just up near the Warrior area and sirens would go off country wide including Birmingham and even down near Irondale, Hoover, Leeds, Fultondale just to name a few cities. That part of the warning process definitely must be fixed as soon as possible. It is also good that you crew up there are learning from every severe weather outbreak. However, not everyone has I-phones and technology like that, but one lesson from April 27 and the other outbreaks this spring is that everyone needs to have a accurate weather source to let them know what is going on. On the small spin up tornado’s along a line of storms, it is the weather service job to issue appropriate warnings, however, I think there needs to be a TVS or some type of a hook on radar before they issue a tornado warning. Seems to me just blanketing a line of storms with the STW just because it is a line does not work in every case. Many cases it does, but not every line of storms is the same. Trying to catch small spin up tornado’s is there job, but standards must be tightened so they can issue less tornado warnings in that case. Also, integrating technology and weather radio’s to polygon warnings would help a great deal to cut down on the false alarm ratio. They have already upped the hail part of a STW. Should they up the wind part or should it stay at 58 MPH or greater? To a lesser degree, the winter storm advisories and warnings must be improved as well. In middle February, Montgomery was under a winter storm warning and ended up getting 1/4 of 1 inch. That is not hardly a winter storms by anyone’s standards. I just included that to cool off readers thinking about the current heat.
    About forecasters looking their audience in the eye, AMEN to that. There truly is no substitute for this.
    Finally, we all know there will be more severe weather. We live in the Southeast. There will continue to be all types of weather. I am not sure that I agree that James will never see another April 27 again. Biblical signs of the end times are all around us, and that is certainly possible. It may not be in Alabama, but it is possible. As I said since the spring tornado season started, take every severe thunderstorm and tornado warning seriously if it is bearing down on your area. That is the lesson of this spring tornado season. Finally James, you brought up blizzards. Were you referring to blizzards in common area’s of the country that get them from time to time or blizzards in areas of the country that hardly ever see them? Just wondering. Thanks to all you do ABC 3340.

  17. Melster says:

    I’m with Alan from Bear Creek on part of this–however I’m asking that James and the weather crew help us explain the importance of the this to the appropriate people who can make the changes. I also live in Marion County and consider myself VERY weather informed, but was flying blind all day on 4/27 because we had no weather radio at all except for the Florence market which was not effective for us. After all the tornadoes had moved through our area, the weather radio was working again, but when we needed it the most–there was nothing but static. I would have thought that someone could have flipped a switch or something and atleast given us access to the Birmingham market and then we would have had warnings–or atleast known about the tornado watch. At home, I would have had the TV, but I was at work with no TV, no telephone lines working, no cell phone service, no internet service and no weather radio. Everything I have depended on for weather was OUT! I eventually just left work because I was too nervous without any source of information. When the tornado hit Hackleburg and Hamilton, the only way we found out what was happening was by a scanner while I spent 3 hours or so in and out of the storm house because storm after storm kept moving through and had no way of knowing where it was going or when it would quit. Thank goodness I had been reading the weather maps and listening to the weather all week so I knew it was a HUGE risk that day and paid attention. My only concern is if some of the people who died in Marion County, did so because we basically had no contact with the outside world after the morning storms came through and put us in this situation. It’s Mother Nature and I understand that aspect, but sometimes I just wonder.
    James–Thanks for giving us the opportunity to listen to you and express our opinions.

  18. thunder says:

    Alan in Bear Creek brought up the failure of the weather radio up in the northwest part of the state. I was wondering about that as well. Why do they not have battery backups?

  19. Ryne says:

    I agree for the most part. However, I don’t believe sirens should be taken down. The sirens may be the only way some people who are outside can get the warning. The sirens shouldn’t go off for small spin up tornadoes that are embedded in a squall line. But they are very much needed during supercell outbreaks for 2 main reasons:
    1. Supercells usually develop and turn tornadic very quickly with no way to pinpoint exactly where they will form.
    2. The large, life-threatening tornadoes usually come from supercells.

    I also think the NWS should issue a separate type/degree of warning for small spin up tornadoes. Something in between a Severe Thunderstorm Warning and a Tornado Warning.

  20. a_meteorologist says:

    “These kind of warnings force us to go on the air for 40-45 minutes, often after tornado signature has vanished from the radar.”

    Seems to me like the issue is with management (or whoever is making the wall-to-wall decisions) at the television station. There should be better judgement as to when it is necessary.

    “If something doesn’t change soon, the private sector will be the ones that push the warning process into the new technological era.”

    Fine with me, at least on the dissemination side. Competition within the private sector can result in some real innovation and significant/rapid advancements. We’ve already seen this with iMapweather-radio, and will likely see much more of it in the future. I see real benefit in more private sector involvement with warning dissemination technology, as long as it continues to be backed by solid government warning program feeding the new technology that disseminates the warnings.

    “Lives were saved April 27 by pushing tornado information to the masses through Facebook and Twitter.”

    Absolutely. We cannot underestimate the value of this. For data that is provided through cell carriers, capacity isn’t nearly as much of an issue as it is on the voice network since the data network is designed so that each subscriber has a continuous connection. On the 27th, I never once lost data connection through my cell carrier during my travels throughout northern and central Alabama. Of the people that had smartphones, data communications such as e-mail and social media (including Facebook and Twitter) were the only way to get weather information in some cases. The voice communications network was nearly useless due to overloading, as is typically the case in a disaster situation. This rendered WeatherCall (and other similar services that rely on the voice network) useless.

    Keep up the good work, James. You, your partners, colleagues, and the entire integrated warning team for that matter, saved many lives on the 27th.

    One final note, using SPC data: More people were killed by tornadoes in one day (April 27th) than were killed in by F0, F1, and F2 tornadoes in the last 20 years.

  21. Bill in Vigo says:

    Hi James, I agree with you about the general usefulness of the siren system. the warnings are to widespread with county wide warnings. Here in NE Calhoun county most of the time by the time the sirens are activated the power is already down so they don’t function. Also our primary NWS radio transmitter is on Mt Cheaha and weak. We live in the shadow of Duggar Mt. so the signal in greatly diminished then the rain comes and it is even weaker. We do have a transmitter in GA that booms in relatively close I think near Cedartown but doesn’t carry the Alabama warnings so doesn’t help greatly. We watch 33/40 via satellite until the signal or the power is lost. Where we live there is no high-speed Internet so streaming is out. Cell signals are spotty and often week in this area also. Just lucky here I guess. not complaining I wouldn’t move for the world. Maybe we will get high speed in the next 5 years hope so wireless would be great I think.

    So I think that we need great improvement in the detection of the tornadoes and also the ability to disseminate the information the the correct locations. You and your team do the best but there are times when we just can’t get the signal. Perhaps a repeater or additional transmitter for the Birmingham NWS somewhere north of Duggar Mt. in the NE Calhoun county or south Cherokee county area would be in order.

    Thanks for all that you do,

  22. Melster says:

    For “thunder”—-my weather radio does have a battery back up. That day, the Winfield weather tower was not working because the morning storms knocked it offline or whatever and therefore, had no access to warnings that effected us. We got them for Lawrence, Colbert and other counties when I tried changing the codes–just not when they were in Marion County.

  23. T says:

    Doesn’t a lot of this simply stem from a lack of imagination? TV was once THE source for information. This is no longer true. Why couldn’t a multicast be sent through all cell phone and internet carriers to reach almost everyone to “hit them where they live”? It would take some time and doing but could be part of the regulatory licensing process and could be based on a unified code/program for each medium. TV and radio should either carry the warning from the NWS or go on air themselves with the warning in keeping with the idea that they serve the public.

    Expounding on that, the warnings the NWS puts out are OK, but a real person relaying the info would help a lot over that text-to-voice monstrosity.

    And why so many layers between the warning system and the end user? Why can’t the NWS have in-house features that do these things rather than relying on others? Even if they have to contract it out? The fewer layers between those issuing the warning and the public the better. That would never diminish the need for you and others to interpret and expound.

    I agree mostly with you, but there has to be some compromise between FAR and POD. Certainly using the polygon rather than conuty warnings would improve the situation, but the problem with not issuing warnings for the small spin-ups within squall lines is that no one knows which ones will be a real problem and which won’t. The know-how is just not there. And the NWS probably doesn’t want folks screaming at them for not warning them any more than you don’t want to carry those warnings wall to wall for the same reason: People would blame you for not warning them and would lose trust. (Yes, I realize false alarms harm trust as well)

    Precious little progress has been made since the discovery of the TVS in 1973 other than improved detection through greater availability of dopplar radar and greater ability to communicate(though, as you point out, it is often under-utilized). The use of cameras and spotters has surely helped confirm radar data and improve warnings. The radars have improved. But correlating what’s on radar with conditions on the ground is still very difficult, especially here where spotters are limited by terrain. Here’s hoping for a technilogical breakthrough.

    People also do have to start taking the warnings seriously. I’ve seen so many videos on youtube of people outside and barely outside harm’s way or that just barely sought shelter in time as the tornado bore down on them. It’s almost like some dissociative disorder when some people have a camera in their hands and a lot of those folks are lucky to be alive to show their eyewitness accounts.

    Thank you for all you do. Keep working hard and pushing for improvements.

  24. 525 in Winfield went out shortly before 5:30am on the 27th. Internet went out same time in Haleyville and Bear Creek. Local Radio Station depended on internet for info but was not available.

    I was 1 mile south of Phil Campbell spotting however all I had to depend on was the Hamilton 2m repeater and North Alabama Skywarn Net on 146.96. I had the Apple App’s, the wxRadar and the Imap purchased the day before. They became useless because service was lost 30 minutes prior on the AT&T Bear Creek tower. Anyway many of the App’s simple do not work efficient without 3G. This area does not have 3G.

    Marion and Winston Co’s are in the fringe of NWS in Birmingham especially in the North parts. As an spotter in an Amateur Radio perspective, many depend on North Alabama Skywarn. In a general public perspective without TV coverage or monitoring local Public Safety radio scanners the sirens is all was had in this part of the world that day.

  25. Dave says:

    Glad you updated on Twitter & Facebook, power was out and unable to watch TV, followed twitter and facebook on my laptop with wireless internet. Listened to WAPI radio to hear live call ins from people in the field.

  26. Dave says:

    As for the sirens, in my opinion a waste of money. Can’t hear them at home or work when inside. Can hear then outside at work in Jefferson Co. At home in North Bibb County sometime I can hear the one in Woodstock and the one in Vance.

  27. Troy says:

    First of all, the outbreak of April 27th was forcasted days in advance. It was talked about on all the local stations and the weather channel. Spann hammered it into the viewers heads for days on end. So did the meatorologists on other channels. So anybody complaining about weather radios or outdoor sirens not working that day in their areas being the reason people didn’t know about tornadoes heading their way need to be more proactive. Anybody that watches the news(and everyone should, whether its on TV or via internet) would have known to be vigilant about the weather on that day. Sorry, the government can’t go door to door making sure every citizen is aware of current events, whether they are weather, sports, or political. In other words, people need to quit relying on others for information. Don’t be passive and wait for someone else to give you the info. Go get it yourself. It’s out there on television, radio, IM, internet, etc. The sad part is that if an EF4 or EF5 tornado hits you, it won’t matter how much notice you have, unless you have an underground shelter to go to. As I watched the reports coming out of Joplin, MO I had to shake my head. People said the only had 20 mins notice that a tornado was headed their way. Well that is a bunch of bull. The NWS and all local/ national stations had been saying that that part of the country was in for a major severe weather outbreak. Everyone should have had their plan in place. As always these days…it’s always somebody else’s fault when something bad happens.

  28. James, while I agree we can always and should seek improvements to the current state of the art watch/ warning process, and strive for new and even better methods of warning the public when tornadoes threaten, I personally believe the April 27th tornadic swarm was such an extreme intensity event that a large death toll was inevitable.

    This was far and away, the most intense tornado outbreak I’ve ever witnessed in the southeastern U.S. Already we have three EF5 tornadoes confirmed (12 EF4; several of them borderline EF5), and I am solidly convinced based on damage survey there were at least two or three others which were EF5. In my honest opinion, the Tuscaloosa/ Jefferson county tornado produced EF5 damage in both counties. A tornado more than a mile wide with winds 200 mph or more tearing across two heavily populated metro areas at the worst time of day (many commuters in vehicles). There’s a reason stormchasers dub EF5 tornadoes the “finger of God”. They are unsurvivable above ground level, and sometimes people die underground; in basements ripped out of the ground.

    I am very afraid many of the 240+ who died in Alabama heard the warnings, saw the tornadoes, took what they believed to be life saving action, and still perished (as also occurred in Ringgold, Georgia into Tennessee where numerous new homes were swept away/ obliterated and 21 died).

    Yes improvements can and must be made to the watch/ warning system….but in an extreme intensity tornadic events such as 4/27/11 and 4/3/74, don’t believe there’s any way (other than from God’s mercy) to keep the death and injury toll from being horrendous.

  29. One death is too many, but we had less than 300 deaths in Alabama. Considering how many and how strong the tornadoes were, I am shocked we did not have five times as many. Some folks will never pay attention.

    Karen Logan, please call or E-mail me and I will give you a weather radio. 205-836-0454

  30. craig says:


    “Considering how many and how strong the tornadoes were, I am shocked we did not have five times as many. Some folks will never pay attention.”

    I’ve thought all along that the death toll was very low, all things considered. When I first saw that monster ripping through Tuscaloosa live, I was thinking it might be thousands given all the other deadly storms that day as well.

    Spann wrote, “Despite my long tenure here, I still learn something after every severe weather event. Some things worked, others didn’t.”

    James, would like to know what some of the things are that didn’t work and what might be done differently the next time there is a major severe threat. Thanks! Great post and great coverage. Yes, I live in DFW and saw Dancing with the Stars was on during a PDS TOR warning!

  31. Cecilia says:


    I do agree with your article, but I would like to point out that Alabama needs to update its weather technology. I am from Oklahoma, and the technology there is 10 times as advanced than here, and can predict and pinpoint tornadoes down to the street level. Gary England is a pioneer in the weather business, and I suggest giving him a call. He can help.

    I don’t say this to criticize, but I had lived in Oklahoma all my life, and was never affected by a tornado till I came here. Our apartment was completely destroyed, and we were in the only room that was left standing, the bathroom. People had to come and knock down the wall just to get us out. The issue I have is that we didn’t know what was coming. We were told it was on the other side of town from the TV broadcaster, and we got in that bathroom just as a precaution. If I had known it was coming straight for us, I would have gotten my animals as well. We lost one because of it, but one survived.

    I will say that the people of Alabama are amazing. Your generosity and spirit through this time is an inspiration. I pray for all the families that were affected on April 27th, and I know this state will come back even stronger.

  32. Mike Mayfield / Texas says:

    I do agree on the need for better warning and the crying wolf syndrome. However I strongly disagree on the subject of the siren system. As a firefighter in Texas, I have seen the sirens save lives. My hometown does not have them but all of the surrounding area does have them including a town where i served as assistant fire chief. . The technology on the warning sirens has improved to the point where they can actually set them off in the community that is threatened. I don’t understand why all of a sudden professional media have to downgrade the siren issue.I do know that sirens are set off too soon sometimes. I know in Joplin, they were set off at 20 minutes prior to the massive tornado striking that city. And Greenfield Kansas had ample warning as well. No doubt that they did save lives in those storms. I will not agree to taking them down ever, especially in the tornado prone areas. I would rather hear them and know something is coming thsn not hear them and then the liability of someone being killed and then family members questioning “why were the sirens not activated”. That my friend is something I dont want to hear about. We as storm spotters do rely heavily on you guys. That is why we make sure that one is in the immediate area before any warning is given I thank you guys for a job well done.

  33. thunder says:


    I am sorry for the confusion in my blog post. I meant to say why did the tower itself not have a battery backup or another tower on a different frequency be assigned the warnings to the region that is out. The weather service not having a plan for their towers being hit does not make any sense and needs addressing before tornado season rolls around again.

  34. thunder says:

    I know that Jim from the BHM NWS does agree with the warning for small spin ups. Is he going to get a chance to tell his side of the story on this blog or on weatherbrains? That way the blog posters can make an informed decision. I am concerned that we are only getting your side of the story (although what you say made a whole lot of sense).

  35. trussvillian says:

    This is why you are number One in so many hearts. James, you and the 33/40 crew are top notch!!

  36. Kim says:

    The sirens do not make a difference, when people don’t take storms seriously anyway. I don’t go by a siren, just look out the window, watch the radar, or listen to the weather guys. I was in the April 27th tornado, and my husband, kids, and I were prepared in advance for what might come. We did not know that we would have a direct hit, but we knew from ya’ll forcasting for days that we would have bad weather to be prepared. We were in our basement at least 20 minutes before the storm came through. I thank God he spared our lives and my grandparents lives, and I thank God for James and the weather gang, keeping us informed. The weather is serious business.

  37. Gary says:

    James, you hit the nail on the head with one key point: No matter whether you’re talking about storm sirens, NOAA weather radios, smart phone apps, or any other warning system, THE POLYGON SYSTEM MUST BE USED!!!!

    False alarms kill. It’s that simple.

    When weather radios consistently go off at 3 a.m. for warnings 30 miles away, people are more likely to turn them off at bedtime, defeating the whole purpose of having them. It’s the same mentality as pulling the battery out of your smoke alarm because it goes off every time you cook something. Stupid and shortsighted? Absolutely. But people do it in frighteningly large numbers.

    I once worked at a company that had a strict tornado warning policy. Any time there was an active warning in the county, we had to leave our desks and go down to the basement. The problem with this otherwise lifesaving policy? It was completely ignorant of the polygon system. We once had to take shelter at our Anniston location because a TVS in Etowah County was clipping the extreme northwest corner of Calhoun County.

    More than simply annoying, this event fostered a crying-wolf mentality among the employees. A few weeks later, another tornado warning was issued, and people took their time heading to the safe place. As our frantic HR supervisor tried to usher people to the basement, the typical response was, “Yeah, yeah, I’m going …”

    The difference was that the second warning was for a supercell that went right over us. Had it dropped a tornado, lives might’ve been lost. I’m sure that some of the fatalities and serious injuries on April 27 were due to this same lack of urgency.

    I also agree with you that tornado warnings should not necessarily be issued for spin-ups. However, I don’t think “severe thunderstorm warning” is clear enough to warn people of the possibility of deadly winds (whether EF-1 or straight line) from these storms. Either the terminology needs to change (i.e., removing the word “thunderstorm”) or a new warning level needs to be inserted between “severe thunderstorm” and “tornado” that is reserved for those storms that are more likely to produce spin-up tornados and dangerous straight-line winds but are NOT likely to produce strong EF-3+ tornados.

    Keep up the great work, James. You and rest of the ABC 33/40 staff are our go-to source for info whenever severe weather threatens. We appreciate all you do.

  38. Randy says:

    First of all, let me say that I have tremendous admiration and respect for what you do and the passion you exhibit for it. While I agree with much of what you wrote, I have issue with some…

    1. As far as no tornado warnings for QLCS activity, all you have to do is look at April 27 to shoot that down..just in the BHM NWS CWA there were 11 tornadoes during the morning squall line event including 3 EF-3’s, and none of the 11 were rated below EF-1. While it is a tough challenge to know when to pull a trigger for a tornado warning for QLCS storms, on April 27 discretion was the better part of valor.

    2. If simply blanketing the area in advance of a QLCS with Severe Thunderstorm Warnings, well, that is simple. PEOPLE SIMPLY DO NOT PAY ATTENTION TO SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNINGS. I wonder how many lives were saved on the morning of the 27th by alerting to tornado warnings instead of a severe thunderstorm warning. Before any change to the system can be implemented, some very serious education must be devoted to the importance and dangers of severe thunderstorms.

    3. Severe thunderstorms themselves need to be examined. By far, the largest killer in a severe thunderstorm is lightning yet the current criteria for severe thunderstorms is just wind and hail. Until the public appreciates the severity of a Severe Thunderstorm Warning, which is gonna take some doing, I am against any significant changes to tornado warnings.

    4. I’m sure you didn’t mean for it to sound or come across the way it did, but cutting back tornado warnings simply to save a “wall to wall” broadcast interruption is a cop-out. I’m sure the NWS doesn’t issue warnings just so the TV mets take over the airwaves for 45 minutes.

    5. I have lived in several major cities and Birmingham does the best job of all those when it comes to severe weather coverage. But I have seen in some places (WMC in Memphis for one) where the met openly disputes a NWS warning from the moment it is issued. If TV stations and mets want to start their own warning system and ignore NWS, fine. Simply interrupt broadcasts based on YOUR call of the situation and leave the NWS out of it. But the danger there is, if and when the TV met is wrong, as always, they’ll find a way to blame the NWS for their own shortcomings as a weather provider. But since TV mets rely on NWS warnings as their source then don’t do a cut in and say things like ” Well, the NWS issued a warning but I don’t know why because I can’t see anything on our own radar showing what they say is there”. I actually witnessed the chief met at WMC say this earlier this year….and it was the stations own radar that he based his opinion on, not the NWS Doppler that the NWS used to base the warning on. People trust the tv mets because they can see them on tv, they don’t see the NWS people hunkered over computer monitors, looking at balloon data and numerous models. And it is human nature to believe what you see and hear (a la WMC)and proven by towercams themselves on April 27. Well, if so and so at WMC doesn’t think there is a tornado, there must not be. But conversely, towercams have proven invaluable because “seeing is believing”. I believe the towercams saved many lives on April 27 because you could actually see it and the fear it put into people was incalcuable.

    6. I agree that changes to the siren system are needed. But I am not sure if doing away with it altogether is the right thing to do.

    Thanks again for all you do and inspiring a good debate.

  39. James please visit the link it talks about Atlanta trying to work on something similar to what you are talking about. However I don’t know if they will produce a solution that is worthy. Just thought it was interesting to see the correlation between your post and this from the ATL NWS.

  40. kelley says:

    It comes down to personal responsibility, as so many things do. Often we have days of warning that there is going to be a weather situation. We did on April 27th. Admitally, I am a weather obsessed wife and mother so I stay on top of these things. I make sure that my husband (who travels quite a bit) and 14, 10, and 7 year old kids know when we are expecting bad weather. Our home and neighborhood in Hoover was completely unaffected by the storms, but twice went to our safe place.
    We have taken our kids to volunteer at the various storm sights. I want them not only learn to reach out to others, but to see the power of weather. I want them to remember and not ever take any warning lightly. Stories that we have heard from McDonald’s Chapel, Pleasant Grove, and Tuscaloosa include people being killed exactly where they should shelter during a storm. People survived being absolutely where they shouldn’t be.
    I find the sirens to be helpful,especially at the ballpark! I also use the weather radio, computer, blackberry, and television. We can’t just depend on one source and there is always room for improvement. However, with an outbreak of that magnitude you just have to do the best you can.

  41. Beau Dodson says:

    As always, I am happy to read your thoughts on the warning process and meteorology in general. I think dialogue between all of the partners in the warning process is the best way to move forward.

    I think we all agree that the NOAA Weather Radio need to be upgraded. The NWS admits this.

    I think many of us as meteorologists wrestle with how to convey the warnings to the public – especially the small spin-ups. Severe weather is spotty – the odds of YOUR home being demolished by a tornado are small -at best. So – how do we convey the message to the general public.

    People are scared of the weather – especially after the last 10 years. People tell us they are scared during severe weather. Our job is to inform them of the potential – inform them of the safety rules – inform them of the warnings and the warning process.

    It will never be a perfect system.

    But – no doubt it can be improved on. Improvement will come through conversations such as the one being held on your blog.

    Thanks! As always – you are a gentleman and a scholar. And a hero to many.


  42. Bob says:

    I agree with almost everything you say: The FAR is too high and a larger number of people are no longer paying attention. However, in order for your ideas to work, the media would HAVE to be more forgiving of small, spin-up tornadoes NOT being tornado-warned for. There are a lot of NWS mets who are terrified of the implications of missing even a small tornado, including the media magnifying glass which accompanies missed events. Unfortunately this diminishes the effectiveness of the warning process when you have bona fide killer tornadoes occurring.

  43. Schmiez says:

    I totally disagree with stopping the sirens. Are they perfect? Far from it. But the sirens, even 45 mins early, are a first-alert for many. During their inception, they may have been the best defense.

    But as you point out, we now have more reliable TV, web, smartphone, etc… Sirens would indicate that I need to check another resource to assess the situation.

    I compare a siren to a seatbelt. So far, my seatbelt has saved my life 0 times out of 100,000 rides. Yet I wear it for the 1 time someone runs a red light. I dont ignore the features because of the 100% miss rate thus far.

    And those who heard them and ignored, well, they have a bigger problem of ignoring signals put in place for their safety.

  44. Kam says:

    Preach, James! Absolutely. The only thing I wonder is about the sirens. I’m not sure people are going to look up every time there are dark clouds and go check a source of information. Thunderstorms with tornadoes don’t look that different from others. The sirens are at least a heads up that something violent is going on somewhere, so I don’t think they should be ruled out. I DO thing their use should be limited, and that if we are going to use them, there should be more of them in more areas so you’re not warned for something happening clear at the other end of the county. That system, I believe, can still be modified to be efficient. My main source during the outbreak was streaming and twitter. And DON’T GET ME STARTED on “Dancing With the Stars”…that was ludicrous.

  45. JoMo says:

    After the May 22nd tornado hit Joplin, many areas were without power as well as landline service. Also, cell phone towers had been damaged or destroyed and all circuits were busy and cell phones would drop calls. The only thing we had to rely on when there was a tornado warning on May 24th was the sirens and a battery powered radio and the people giving timely information on there.

    During the May 22nd tornado, the sirens were activated with the first tornado warning. They were again activated when the tornado was sighted just west of Joplin.

    The issue is, many people do not understand what they mean. Our sirens use the classic ‘air raid’ constant wailing siren. They are activated for a short time then turned off. Some people think that when they are turned off, that means the tornado or threat is over which isn’t the case.

    As far as what Troy said. No outbreak was expected for the Joplin area on May 22nd. There was a moderate risk and a 10% hatched tornado risk all along the front.

  46. Curtis says:

    About the QLCS type tornadoes, I agree that there are way too many false alarms.

    That being said, there have been significant (F2/EF2+) tornadoes which have occurred with QLCS’s. For example, the high end EF3 tornado which hit the St. Louis area on New Year’s Eve this past December was part of a QLCS (the storm which produced this tornado was supercellular earlier in its life span but evolved into a line segment as it entered St. Louis County).

    The initial tornado warning for this storm stated that widespread damaging winds and brief, rain wrapped tornadoes were possible with the storm. While one person was killed in this tornado, I’d imagine that the death toll could have been much higher if the National Weather Service had not issued a tornado warning. A few days after the tornado, I asked a few people at a local library which I worked at how they responded to this tornado warning and how they respond to warnings in general, severe thunderstorm and tornado. Their response was that they did not take protective action and would likely not during future warnings unless the warnings become more “detailed”. They believed that the hassle of taking shelter for an extended period of time was not worth it (personally) unless there were to be an imminent danger at their precise* location.
    When I asked if this attitude toward severe weather warnings stemmed from high numbers of false alarms, they agreed that false alarms affected their attitude towards warnings. Of note, each of the three people whom I spoke to lived within 5 miles of the area which received the worst tornado damage.

    Personally, I think that the improvement of severe weather warning systems still requires a two-fold effort. First, the meteorological authority which issues severe weather warnings (NWS) could reach out to people through social media (already beginning to occur) and through television and radio to educate the public on the current warning system (ie, what does a tornado warning mean, why should a citizen take shelter, how and when should they, and on what basis does the NWS issue tornado warnings). Second, ongoing research on tornado detection (especially for situations when non-supercellular convection has the potential to produce EF2+ tornadoes) must continue so that, eventually, the number of false alarm tornado warnings can be reduced.

  47. Curtis says:

    I forgot to add a link to the St. Louis National Weather Service article about the New Year’s Eve Outbreak:

  48. Brandon In Ohatchee says:

    I agree to a point about false alarms but here is something to think about from April 27th. The tornado came acorss the lake and tore a path from Ragland all the way to Websters Chapel to Piedmont. About an hour or so after the storm hit five miles North and South you could not even tell that anything went down. So many folks were shocked when they drove up Hwy 77 and seen the damage. Really unless you were in the path of the storm it was like a cloudy day with some thunder. I don’t think taking down the sirens would help. Heck if it save one life then they are worth it. I for one can hear a siren from my home and it alerts me to turn on the television and see whats happening and get to shelter or get the kids out of the pool. There will always be false alarms but that is just life but I had rather be safe than sorry. Most people run inside and turn the television on and see if James or the gang is on and then you can tell if you should take shelter or not. Just my two cents. I do agree with the small spin up tornado’s they need to do away with the warning on those.

  49. Charles says:

    Very good discussion. I agree with Randy’s six points above. Personally every time I hear the warning siren, I check to see why it is sounding. If people are too busy to take five minutes to find out what the warning is about then it is to their peril. I utilize the system even if most of the time there is no immediate danger. I don’t want to be deprived just because most people don’t pay attention.

    I don’t see why a banner across the screen can’t serve to warn people when the weather dept at the station does not feel the warnings are relevant. Keep up the good work and thanks for the excellent website.

  50. Boy says:

    Guys how many times has James been on air and pointed out suspicious areas on radar and the nws never warns and low and behold James was right.How many times has James told you the areas warned that the storm dont look threatening and he was right…my point is this…get rid of the nws and invest that money into local guys like James.Our local weather guys are the best out there and far outweigh the failing nws.

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