Sunday, March 6, 2016

Duck, Cover, and Get Lower

Each spring, the air just seems to change. The smell is different…fresh. Those Downy commercials that advertise spring scent were really on to something. It just feels more relaxing. Spring is one of my favorite times of the year in case you can’t tell, but I don’t think anyone jumped on to read an ode to spring, so I digress…

Being from the South, spring also means something else…severe weather. Not so much here in Montana (as the heart of convective season tends to hold off until a few months from now). Nonetheless, my mind still switches into severe weather mode, if for nothing else but to keep an eye on family and friends still living in the South. This year has already started off on an active note for parts of the country. According to SPC's Tornado Trend Graph, the running count of LSR'd tornadoes through March 4th is above the 75th percentile (see graph below).

In light of recent events, and in switching to meteorological spring, conversations among many Meteorologists inevitably has, or will, involve preparedness/safety and the protection of life and property. Spotter training is, or will soon be, in full swing across the country and preparedness/safety will likely be a hot topic at many conferences and operations floor conversations.

The NWS, media, private companies…we’ve all worked to improve products, freshen wording, learn new techniques, etc in an effort to prepare people prior to an event and then strongly encourage action be taken during an event. Still, lives are lost. Now, I do not say that in a criticizing way at all. We can’t FORCE people to do anything. We warn, they act. The problem is, people don’t always act the we we had hoped. In the movie, "Hitch", Will Smith's character does everything right on a date, but doesn't quite get the response he had hoped (CLIP). I truly believe we are doing a lot of things right, but we still don't always get that expected response.

I know research from social scientists is looking into this which is great. And, of course, research within the Meteorological community is always looking for new ways to use radar, satellite, etc to give clues as to how an event may unfold or how to better detect severe weather as it’s happening. I hope all of that research never stops and that we never stop learning from it (myself included). Recently, though, I've wondered if there is anything else that can be done on top of the great work already in progress.

The office I currently work at (NWS Great Falls) started doing customer surveys this past winter to get at least somewhat of an idea of how the public feels we did in various events. As a part of the survey, there were several questions related to products we issue (advisories, watches/warnings, etc). In reading through those responses, it surprised me how many people thought an advisory was worse than a warning. Of course, with severe weather we don’t have to worry about the advisory/warning distinction, but I’m sure many of you have gotten the, ‘Which is worse...a watch or warning?’ question many times regarding severe weather. To Meteorologists, it seems like such a simple distinction, but isn’t that like some requirement to passing MET 101?

You know that show, “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?". I bet if you ask any 5th grader what to do if there is a fire in their house, many, if not most, could tell you. Get low and get out, call 911, and so on. I wonder how many of those same kids could tell you what to do if a Tornado Watch or Warning is issued for their area…or even what the difference between the two is? Growing up, we regularly had talks from public safety folks regarding drugs, fires, and seat belts. I realize this varies by location, but for me (even in all my years in the South), I never once remember having a talk by anyone regarding weather safety. In Alabama, we did have regular tornado drills and teachers went over what to do while at school, but no one talked about what to do if you are at home alone, walking home from school, etc. Just thinking aloud here, but what if we could somehow make weather safety as important as fire safety in schools, workplaces, etc? Kids know “Stop, drop, and roll”. What if just as easily they could learn “duck, cover, get lower” (or any sort of catchy phrase)?

Outreach and education is an important part of the NWS mission and I’m sure it is an integral part in other sectors of the weather community as well. But, do we make it as important as the watches and warnings themselves? Again, just thinking aloud, but what if education needs to be made even more important than it already is? I don’t think there is a magic solution that saves every life. As with warnings, people still have a choice to heed those elementary school fire safety lessons, and some may not choose the right decision. But, I also think there are those who make bad decisions because, by no fault of their own, they simply don’t know better. If there is a fire and no one ever taught you how to respond, you’d just have to figure it out on your own (not an easy task in the middle of such a stressful situation). Fire alarms are great, but what makes them even more effective is teaching people how to respond when one goes off. Same goes for those “annoying” weather radios. Them sounding for a warning is great and I’m sure many people instinctively know that something bad is out there, but how much more effective could they be if people had that extra bit of knowledge in how to respond? Same could apply to warnings that people get on their phones...that knowledge of how to respond could prove invaluable!

Maybe, just maybe, nearly as much effort should go into education as goes into the warnings themselves. And not just severe weather warnings, but winter weather, fire weather, all of those. I think the Meteorological community has some great warnings, messaging, etc and I think there have been some really good strides in those products over the years. In addition to that, maybe some really good strides in education will continue to lower the number of fatalities seen each year. 

 I do want to clarify something here. The effort that goes into warnings is pretty stout. In the NWS, for example, there are months of training required before one can even be certified to issue warnings. And once certified, there is the continual interrogation of a wide array of data leading up to a forecaster's decision to pull the trigger on a warning. Add to that, new research and technology that is regularly coming out that gives a forecaster even more to consider. In light of all that, I want to be careful how I compare this with education. What I am comparing is the time and effort spent on research, new technology, etc to enhance warnings and the warning decision process to the time and effort spent on educating our partners and the public. I don't think the time and effort spent on developing/enhancing warnings should change at all and I'm not saying the time/effort spend on education should exactly equal that of warnings, but what I am suggesting is that we up the game even more regarding education. Maybe find ways to get weather safety talks as a regular part of school curricula (like drug and fire safety) where this isn't already happening. I know there is a lot of outreach already being done and I'm just thinking that making it even more commonplace in schools, workplaces, etc could be another step in the attempt to save lives.

"The great aim of education is not knowledge but action" - Herbert Spencer. If we want people to act on our warnings, maybe we need to work even harder at teaching them how...

On a side note, I have only interacted with, worked at, or volunteered at a handful of NWS offices and private weather companies in my career thus far, so my working knowledge of ongoing outreach/education programs is limited. I would love to hear from others out there of what your office/company is doing, what seems to work well, etc. Maybe as a community, we can come up some ideas to further education and pass around what is already working.

And as always, I am just thinking aloud in an attempt to process the challenges faced in the weather community. I could be completely off, so bring on your thoughts and ideas! Let's keep the conversation going...

DISCLAIMER: Opinions are my own and not necessarily that of my employer


  1. Love this phrase Rog ..."Fire alarms are great, but what makes them even more effective is teaching people how to respond when one goes off. " That's a great life-lesson all the way around. We can "sound an alarm" about so many things but giving people tangible skills and ways to respond might save even more lives! ALSO ...I can totally see YOU being an educator in some way to help with this. You're great at communicating your passion! Love it! and...I still get warning and watches mixed up. Please keep helping me/us! ;-)

    1. Thanks Mom! Yeah, alarming has to have some sort of education tied to it to be the most effective. The weather community does this well, but I think we can educate even more. By the way, here is a site that explains watch vs warning