Sunday, March 25, 2012

Warnings & Awareness

Two of the themes you'll see us drill on from time to time this Spring and Summer are warning and awareness.  In the wake of last year's severe weather outbreaks throughout the country, including in places where damaging severe weather is not as common such as Massachusetts, knowing what to do and how to react to severe weather when it impacts our region later this year is critical.  While we're not likely to ever see an EF4 or EF5 tornado around these parts, it has and can happen (La Plata, MD a decade ago, Western Pennsylvania in the 1980's are two such examples).   Occasionally over the next several weeks, Kevin Wagner and I will be highlighting different tools and ways that you can make yourself more weatherwise in case the odd chance that extreme severe weather does turn into reality.

One of the leading voices in the meteorological community about weather awareness is James Spann, who is a television meteorologist in Alabama with ABC 33/40.   Spann is a strong advocate for weather radios, which we touched on a while ago in wake of the tornado outbreaks on Leap Day across the South and Midwest.  Spann is also an advocate for planning and preparation in case there is severe weather, as well as utilizing other methods of technology than sirens alone in case there's a tornado warning.

"I have always felt that the siren mentality has killed dozens, if not hundreds of people in my state over the years," Spann noted in an email interview I had with him a couple of weeks ago. "The April 27, 2011 event, with 252 deaths, certainly brought the siren issue to the front of my mind. And, recently, a 16 year old girl died near Birmingham January 23 of this year during a pre-dawn tornado. The grieving father said "they never heard the siren"... meaning that family thought they would hear a siren in the middle of the night to alert them to a tornado."

"Sirens reach a very small number of people outdoors, and have never, ever been effective at reaching people inside a home, school, business, or church. They just don't work that way."

As you know around here, sirens are used for fire companies and also for nuclear plant evacuations...it's pretty clear that sirens aren't as effective as they used to be given most of us are either indoors more, or simply don't hear sirens unless we live very close to a fire hall or a civil defense siren.  More importantly, as we become more synced with other methods of communication, social and otherwise, relying solely on television or radio isn't always effective either.  It's a start, of course, just only a way to reach a percentage of the population that can easily look up stuff on an iPhone or mobile device.

In the past, warnings for severe weather were issued on a county-wide basis (Chester County, Delaware County) or a chunk of a county that may not always be an accurate way to depict the true extent of severe weather.  However, polygon warnings have generally replaced county-level or half-a-county level warnings.  On the whole, a good start, not perfect, but for the larger counties it certainly makes sense.  For a smaller entity like Philadelphia or Delaware County, both of which aren't that big, it can still lead to over-warning fatigue as a severe storm may slice through northern or western parts of Delco and Philly yet a warning may geographically graze the city and still lead to South Philly getting warned.  It's not a perfect system but it's an improvement.   

Spann agrees.

"I love polygon warnings. Tornadoes are tiny and counties are huge. In many cases you have people taking cover over 50 miles away from a tornado, when there is no need to do anything. This leads to a perception of false alarms, which leads to complacency and apathy. The problem is the NOAA Weather Radio, and other alert systems (like outdoor sirens) are not polygon compatible yet. We have to make this happen sooner than later. This is why I am so bullish on the smart phone apps that are polygon based. They work very, very well. Apps like iMap WeatherRadio."

iMap WeatherRadio runs $10 for the Apple world...not yet available on droid but there are weather radio apps out there for a few bucks if you search "weather radio" in the Droid store (er, Google Play).  You can download a freebie version of iMap Weather that doesn't include the radio component...a word of caution, I found the droid version of iMap Weather a bit clunky and crash heavy on my droid phone when I installed it.  The iPad app is pretty slick though and I like it.  That said, mobile connections and ways to get yourself warned (whether it be through a weather radio app or any other app that can push notify you if there's a warning) is the way to go. 

In terms of the transformation that social media has had on communication regarding "breaking" weather, I really think Spann has this nailed down in his approach in forecasting and communicating weather with his followers down South.

"No doubt it has changed everything for me. Not only am I able to reach thousands that would normally not watch TV during severe weather, it is an amazing source of reports during not only severe weather events, but hurricanes, floods, winter storms, etc. Of course, they are not all trained, but I am getting reports now from places where I would never dream of hearing from a human. With almost 100,000 following me on Facebook now, and over 50,000 on Twitter, I have an amazing army of people who want to help make the severe weather warning process better."

As we become more addicted or dependent on our smartphones and mobile devices for communication, tapping into this audience is critical in order to deliver information in case weather breaks.