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Improving The Warning Process… Part II

| 8:04 am June 12, 2011 | Comments (32)

The first blog post on this subject did just what I wanted it to do… start a good dialogue about the warning process.

This post will address point number one… about the false alarm ratio being too high, and trying to warn for small, spin-up tornadoes in a quasi-linear convective system (QLCS, or a squall line as us old timers used to call it).

Reviewing the comments on this point… the hard core weather weenies, geeks, dweebs, and nerds generally disagree with me on this. And, I must point out I am weather nerd. About as big as they come.

The weather enthusiasts believe there should be an attempt to warn for every tornado. Even the EF-0s within a QLCS. They can’t believe I would want to stop that.

Of the comments I have received from TV meteorologists… 100 percent are in agreement with me. Some comments from them…

“Just read your blog post about the warning process and I think it was PRICELESS!!!”

“Great, great, great post on the warning process and how it worked on 4/27. I was speaking with a group of middle-schoolers and they said “they always issue tornado warnings and nothing ever happens.” Out of the mouth of babes, you know…”

Of course, perhaps being the target of hate, rage, and anger when we are cutting off popular prime time TV programs for extremely marginal tornado warnings skews our opinion. The old saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is one of the greatest lies on the planet. We have taken much, much heat in recent years for being on TV when the weather simply isn’t that bad.

Comments from friends with the NWS were generally a little defensive, which I totally understand. I never meant the initial post to be critical of NWS employees and how they do their job… they are just doing what is asked when it comes to QLCS spin-ups. And, let me say the men and women of the NWS Birmingham and Huntsville were heroes on April 27. Their work was as good as it gets that day.

But let’s make it perfectly clear. It doesn’t matter what TV meteorologists, the NWS, or emergency managers think… it is all about the people. Joe Q. Public… the non-weather geek with a casual interest in weather, that needs to respond to warnings. And, I would say reaction to the initial blog post from the public was very favorable. But, then again, a weather blog is just that… I would suggest many “average” folks won’t be on our blog unless we have unusual or active weather.

I also note than in many articles written by news organizations about people in the April 27 tornado outbreak, there were so many quotes from people that were desensitized to tornado warnings.

In this blog post, one writes…

“Josh and I have a name for the weather scene up here in T-town, it’s called “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” I say this because at least twice a month we hear about how bad the weather is going to be, or there’s a tornado warning get in you safe place, but nothing ever happens.”

In this article… University of Alabama Gymnast Kayla Hoffman says…

“Hoffman thought it was a false alarm. “It was kind of a cry wolf situation because we get tornado warnings and it never really amounts to anything”

I don’t see how anybody can debate the public in many cases is apathetic to warnings before of the cry wolf syndrome. I say it again, it is real, and dangerous.

I am glad a good, healthy, conversation has started on this subject. I wrote the initial post because I have looked so many people in the eye in recent weeks that have had relatives, loved ones, neighbors, or friends killed on April 27. This is very serious business.

Here is a summary of where I stand on this issue…

*A FAR (false alarm ratio) of 80 to 90 percent on tornado warnings is way too high. I don’t understand anyone that would defend this one. If nothing else, we all have to work together on lowering the FAR is the warning process is to get any better.

*We are not good enough to provide tornado warnings for small spin-ups with a QLCS in MOST cases. Humility is really missing from our science. By the time you pull the trigger on a warning for this, more than likely the small tornado is long gone by the time the warning reaches the masses. We are simply not able to do this right now with any consistency or accuracy.

*The main threat from a LEWP situation with a QLCS, we all know, is damaging straight line winds. In some cases, widespread damage can result. This should be handled by severe thunderstorm warnings, with strong wording. Unfortunately, most people don’t listen to severe thunderstorm warnings, and if we keep going down this path, they won’t listen to tornado warnings.

*On moderate and high risk days, YES… you have to warn for every potential tornado… linear or cellular. I should have made this statement in the first post.

* I totally understand the decision to provide long form coverage for every tornado warning for any county in our DMA (TV market) is a choice… nobody forced us into this, but we didn’t have as many false alarms in the 1990s, when ABC 33/40 was formed and the policy was made. I am big on keeping promises… and we will continue to honor the commitment we made in 1996. You break a promise once, then your word is no good. Whether is comes to severe weather coverage, a marriage relationship, or anything else.

*I fully realize some people won’t do anything when the weather is dangerous, no matter what. The FAR could be zero and some won’t respond to tornado warnings. Can’t do anything about that.

We can ALL agree we must reduce the false alarm ratio and make the severe weather warning process better. Excellent research is now being done on the April 27 historic tornado outbreak and the loss of life… we will know much more later this year, and I am so glad the annual meeting of the National Weather Association will be in Birmingham in October. We have much to discuss.

And, let’s keep the dialogue going.

The Warning Process Must Get Better

| 9:03 pm June 8, 2011 | Comments (98)

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!

To Warn, Or Not To Warn

| 8:00 am April 12, 2011 | Comments (98)

Forget the issue with TV coverage last night… you can scroll down for my thoughts on that. I double boxed “Dancing With The Stars” simply because I did not believe we had a tornado on the ground.

The issue involves the warning process. Not all tornado warnings are alike; I think long time readers and viewers know that, and understand our point. The event last night was not in the same universe as the tornado disasters that killed many people on April 8, 1998, December 16, 2000, November 24, 2001, etc.

Last night’s situation was a QLCS (quasi linear convective system, or squall line), with potential for damaging straight line winds. Yes, within a line of storms like that you can have small, spin-up tornadoes, but they rarely last more than a few minutes, and are difficult, if not impossible to warn for in most cases. Instead of trying to focus people on small points along the line with a tornado warning, it takes away from the main message that the ENTIRE line is dangerous and capable of producing straight line wind damage. And, yes, there was lots of wind damage.

MY POSITION: Forget the spin-ups. The state of the science is not good enough to adequately warn for these short lived tornadoes, that quite frankly is not all that significant in relationship to the potential for widespread straight line damage from the line of storms. Blanket the line with severe thunderstorm warnings, and make it perfectly clear that small spin up tornadoes are possible within the line.

Last night the NWS in Birmingham took the “whack a mole” approach and tried to warn for spin-ups. The result was a rash of tornado warnings with polygons situated multiple times in the same county and lots of confusion. Below is the SPC storm reports graphic from yesterday and last night…

If you look hard enough, I am sure you will find evidence of damage from a spin-up tornado today, but that graphic clearly tells the story. It was a straight line wind event.

It is my belief that if you warn over and over and over for small spin-ups, when the big events come, like April 8, 1998, nobody will listen because they are so complacent. And, the tornado warnings that come from events last night simply rise the FAR (false alarm ratio). The tornado warning FAR is in the 80 percent range the last time I checked, and in my opinion it is simply too high.

Please understand I have no issue with the NWS… I have talked with my friend Jim Stefkovich, probably the best MIC (Meteorologist In Charge) of a local NWS office in the nation, many times about this, and we simply choose to disagree. Jim not only serves broadcasters, but also the local emergency management community as well, who seem to prefer the warnings for spin-ups. He is doing his job, and I love Jim’s passion and work ethic. Just a difference of opinion on handling these kind of severe weather situations.

BOTTOM LINE: It honestly doesn’t matter what I think, what the emergency management community thinks, or the NWS thinks. It matters what YOU think.

*Should the NWS issue a tornado warning every time they think there might be a small, short lived spin-up tornado a long a line of storms?

*Or, should a situation like last night be handled with severe thunderstorm warnings, with the clear wording that a spin-up is possible?

What say you?