Last week I did a spotter talk up in the far NE corner of our CWA...a rural town of just over 1200 people and located just south of the US/Canadian border (Chinook, MT). 1% of the population showed up. I would say most of our CWA is rural, with a handful of urban areas mixed in. Leaving that meeting, I started thinking about the needs of small town USA and, of all the things we do in the NWS, what is the most helpful for them.
A couple months ago, I wrote a post about picking your battles. Talking to the people in Chinook, I began to realize that I may be missing the point, or not focusing on the right things, with some of the battles I've picked. When you work in an office that is in a more urban setting, it can be easy to focus on the needs of the urban areas and forget the "little guys". I realize we can't hit every single need of every single person we serve. But, going out on outreach trips can sure be eye-opening.
For me, it was eye-opening in several respects. First off, small town USA doesn't necessarily mean the land of no cell phone signal and no WI-FI anymore. The sheriff had a fancy smartphone AND a cool-colored cover. The nearby fire chief also had a smartphone AND uses the mobile version of NWS' EDD. I gotta be honest, I didn't even know we had a mobile version of that site.
Then there's our products/services. The nearby airport manager said our DSS/partner emails we send out are the most helpful thing to him, not the TAFs. I thought it was cool that this small town airport even reads those emails. I mentioned to the sheriff that he could call us anytime for any weather-related help. He replied that after my spotter talk, he may have enough education to not have to call when the next storm approaches the town's summer fair. Does this represent all small towns? Probably not, but I'll bet it's repeated many times over. And, by the way, this is not meant to be seen as negatives about smaller towns, but as the reality of what's actually going on and what is used in smaller towns.
I guess the point is, we can fight all we want for what we THINK small-town USA needs, but after getting out and talking to the people, we may find we are fighting for the wrong things, at least as far as they are concerned. That's not to say that fighting for the needs of big city USA is wrong if it doesn't mesh with small-town USA. For me, small-town USA has simply helped keep things in perspective.
At the same time, this trip also helped me to see that there are things we fight for that I have always assumed were more helpful for larger cities (like the mobile EDD site). Who knew that working on that site, or something similar, may actually help big and small towns. And, while being available to provide support over the phone is great, maybe it's just not for some small towns. I believe our forecasts, warnings, DSS, etc is incredibly important to the mission of the NWS. But, what struck me that day is that all of that MAY not be what is most helpful for some small towns. Maybe outreach and education is our best service to them. Teaching the sheriff how to spot signs of rotation with an incoming storm might just be what helps him best serve his people even more than an email or phone call. When the sheriff said to me that he may not need to call us, it made me think of my kids. One day they will go to college and not have Mom or Dad right there next to them to help make a decision. That's when common sense and parental education comes in. Hopefully we will have taught them enough to make an informed decision. I hope my talk provided the sheriff enough info to make an informed decision whether he is able to reach out to our office or not.
Going forward, it will likely still be tricky trying to decide which battles to pick and which ones to let go of, but this recent interaction with the people we serve really gave me something to chew on. All of these ideas I've held dear may need a dose of ruralness (yes, I think I made up a word) to keep me in check!