Saturday, November 26, 2016

Hazards...Is Simpler Better?

The office I work for as of this writing (NWS Great Falls) has, in recent years, taken steps to get feedback from partners and the public about how they feel we did with various winter weather events and what steps, if any, they took after various products were issued. A lot of responses were expected, but something that caught my attention was how some viewed Winter Weather Advisories compared to Winter Storm Warnings. Surprisingly, some thought an advisory was worse than a warning. Speaking as someone who knows the difference, I did not expect that confusion. But, at the same time, I still have a hard time with people getting Tornado Watches and warnings confused. I know our products (as I should), but maybe the confusion is a sign of a bigger problem.

I love the idea of simplifying our hazards. When I look at the difference between Canada’s “WWA” map and the US’ (see maps below), I feel like simpler is probably better. The legends, alone, speak to the different approach.

But then again, part of me likes the array of colors. Maybe I’m just used to it, but I do like how I can quickly look at the map and know roughly what each hazard is without even having to click on it. That takes us back to my perception, not only as a Meteorologist, but as a NWS employee who has been used to this map and colors for years. The real question is, what does my wife think of the colorful array of filled in counties? I guarantee she can’t look at the map and say (without reading the legend), ‘Oohh…look at the expansive fog advisory in Arkansas!’. I can, but I bet most of the public can’t. The WWA map isn’t for me, it’s for the people I serve. Granted, the legend clears things up some, but maybe multiple colors isn’t the best.

Then I go back to the products, themselves. Recently, while contemplating with some colleagues on the best way to handle an incoming winter system, I came to the realization that for me, personally, I couldn’t say with complete confidence that one way to message the event was better than another. Various products had their pros and cons, but initially it was hard to say one product was the overwhelming favorite.

In this case, 1-3” of snow was expected for the southern third of our CWA, but on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. 1-3” of snow in this part of Montana is not earth-shattering, but not only did it fall after a relatively mild and snow-free period, it also came during the middle of a very busy holiday travel day and this presented an interesting messaging dilemma. It was discussed whether an SPS or advisory was warranted (a warning seemed too much given widespread, significant impacts were not expected). As mentioned earlier, though, some consider an advisory worse than a warning, but maybe this and the watch vs warning dilemma is an education/outreach issue??

While this wasn’t expected to be a significant event, it seemed worth it to get people’s attention, especially given the usually higher volume of traffic through the area. In the past, I would have leaned towards an SPS, but then I got to thinking about reach. Which product is the most visible (which seemed to be a motivating factor in this decision)? As far as I know, TWC still crawls SPS’ in addition to advisories and watches/warnings (I haven’t had cable in several years, though, so please correct me on this if I’m wrong). On social media, we could post either (or just make a general post that doesn’t reference any specific product), so that didn't seem to change the decision. But, what about the local TV media? Here, at least, I have never seen a station show SPS’ on any of their watch/warning maps, but they will show advisories. At the end of the day, I felt like an advisory had the best chance of being the most visible between the two options. That is what our office ended up doing. But, I’m not saying this is a right/wrong issue, it just re-invigorated the messaging discussion in my mind.

But, what about a case where the decision is advisory vs warning? Using the above arguments, both may get the same amount of visibility and, frankly, it appears not everyone even understands the difference. So, we might say warning over advisory in a more widespread, higher-impact event, but would the correct message even be conveyed? In the wording, sure, but just getting the alert on a phone without seeing text...would people know the significance of a warning vs. advisory? I'm sure some would, but based on feedback here, not all would. Some have proposed we get rid of one, namely the advisory. Honestly, I can’t argue against that. But, do we keep the SPS? I know that this product will still go to many phones via apps, even if it never shows up on TV stations. Plus, as it stands now, it covers quite the array of hazards that fall in the potentially-less-impactful-than-a-warning category.

And, of course, what would a good discussion be without a little outside of the box thinking?! As much as I believe a simpler hazards approach is best, is the risk of confusion worth it? We’ve had certain products for so long and people, whether they understand them or not, have heard of these products for many years. Is wiping out products and going with simply Statement, Watch, Warning (ie. like Canada) the right approach? I’m not saying it isn’t, I’m just asking the question. Do we keep the current system and work harder at outreach/education or is the risk of further confusion worth what is probably the best long-term solution? My gut says simplification is worth the risk.

I feel like there isn’t a perfect solution that adequately meets the needs of every single user, but I believe there is a solution that is the most ideal. Personally, I’m still not sure what that is, but it seems some form of simpler is probably better. I’m hoping through user feedback, we can come up with a best solution. I do believe that the best solution cannot be figured out without user feedback. To this point, it’s great to see the effort to get that feedback! I hope we get some beneficial feedback along the way.

As I said before, I believe simplifying is the best option, but I also believe there will be some growing pains along the way. I think if we work together along with feedback from those we serve, we can come up with a more ideal solution. It’s going to take patience and a concerted effort, two tasks that aren’t always easy, but perhaps it will lead to a more user-friendly product suite and maybe even an improved response to hazardous weather.

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