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How do you revamp the warning system?

Over the past couple of years, the National Weather Service has begun a large undertaking in changing the way meteorologists communicate weather information to the public. We have seen extreme events such as Hurricane Sandy and the Joplin tornado that reveal gaps and inadequacies in the warning system. Those issues have been and are continuing to be addressed both by the NWS and social scientists, and progress is being made. However, while the implementation of the latest changes seems to be helping, there is certainly more that has to be done in the wording of the products and in the effective dissemination of the products to the media and the public. As it has been, this will be a slow, multi-year process undertaken with diligence and plenty of research.

Most of the scrutiny of the NWS warnings and other NOAA weather products has come in recent years as the way we communicate continues to distance itself from previous years where the NWS product formats were better suited. Like all other mass communication agencies, the NWS needs to evolve with modern culture, and thus far has struggled to do so. Most NWS offices have their own Twitter and Facebook accounts, but adding the individual offices has been a slow process, and not all offices are on social media at this point. This is important, as it now puts the official source for hazardous weather information in direct communication with its constituents. Before, most of the public got NWS information second hand through the TV or private weather sites. Now the NWS has unprecedented abilities to convey their direct messages with the public. Conversely, the public now has more opportunity to communicate with the NWS and provide feedback.

But here is where we run into a snag: The NWS warnings and discussions do not always efficiently and effectively communicate the hazards and risks directly to the public. Increased access and visibility of the NWS products in a way is forcing the NWS to change the way they write and format their products. Before the large leap in modern communication, the NWS mostly just had to worry about the meteorological aspects and communicating with other meteorologists, emergency managers and event coordinators amongst a select group of others. With everyone’s eyes now viewing the NWS products, changes have to be made.

Aside from the actual communication aspect, one of the hardest issues the NWS deals with is actually getting the public to REACT when a hazardous situation arises. For some people, it takes no less than a literal slap to the face to get them moving, and since the NWS obviously cannot do this, they still sometimes get blamed when people do not take action. The problem is, in order to properly word the warnings to get people to move, the NWS meteorologists sometimes have to stick their necks out by providing more stern, deterministic wording as opposed to the probabilistic, “cover your butt” wording that ensures minimal blowback down the road. Something more effective might include “If you are in the storm’s path, take action now. If you do not, you will be at greater risk of injury or death.”

This year, the NWS introduced more impact-based text into their products, which has helped some in getting more effective communication and understanding. However, this idea, while good in its own merit, is just tacked on to the regular products as an obvious afterthought. So, what has been proposed, and how can we improve it further?

One of the best ideas I have seen involves a clear, bullet-point discussion on the hazards and impacts. With warnings, time can be of the essence, so it is important to keep the information as concise and clear as possible while not losing vital details. Let’s take a look at an example warning just to see how it is laid out:

BULLETIN – EAS ACTIVATION REQUESTED
SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE STATE COLLEGE PA
213 PM EDT TUE SEP 18 2012

THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN STATE COLLEGE PA HAS ISSUED A

* SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING FOR…
EASTERN ADAMS COUNTY IN SOUTH CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA…
EASTERN CUMBERLAND COUNTY IN SOUTH CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA…
DAUPHIN COUNTY IN SOUTH CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA…
NORTHWESTERN LANCASTER COUNTY IN SOUTH CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA…
LEBANON COUNTY IN SOUTH CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA…
SCHUYLKILL COUNTY IN CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA…
YORK COUNTY IN SOUTH CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA…

* UNTIL 315 PM EDT

* AT 206 PM EDT…NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DOPPLER RADAR INDICATED A
LINE OF SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS. THESE SEVERE STORMS EXTENDED FROM NEW
MAHONING TO PROGRESS TO CODORUS TO BRIDGEPORT…MOVING NORTHEAST AT
45 MPH. THESE STORMS ARE CAPABLE OF PRODUCING DAMAGING WINDS IN
EXCESS OF 60 MPH.

* LOCATIONS IN THE WARNING INCLUDE…
SKYLINE VIEW AND MANCHESTER…
BAINBRIDGE AND POTTSVILLE…
HERSHEY AND POTTSVILLE…
HARPER TAVERN AND ELIZABETHTOWN…
LAWN AND LOCUST LAKE STATE PARK…
ANNVILLE AND LICKDALE…

THIS WILL IMPACT THE FOLLOWING CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA INTERSTATES…THE PENNSYLVANIA TURNPIKE BETWEEN MILE MARKERS 230 AND 280…I-78 BETWEEN MILE MARKERS 0 AND 8…I-81 BETWEEN MILE MARKERS 54 AND 139…I-83 BETWEEN MILE MARKERS 4 AND 50…I-283.

THIS WILL ALSO IMPACT THE FOLLOWING MAJOR ROADS…THE HARRISBURG EXPRESSWAY…THE HARRISBURG AIRPORT CONNECTOR…STATE HIGHWAY 283…
ROUTE 11…ROUTE 11/15…ROUTE 15…ROUTE 22…ROUTE 30…ROUTE 209…ROUTE 322…ROUTE 322/22…ROUTE 422…STATE ROAD 61…STATE ROAD 94…STATE ROAD 97…STATE ROAD 309…STATE ROAD 501.

PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS…

THIS LINE OF SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS HAS A HISTORY OF PRODUCING WIND DAMAGE. DO NOT STAY OUTDOORS.

A TORNADO WATCH REMAINS IN EFFECT FOR THE WARNED AREA. IF A TORNADO IS SPOTTED…ACT QUICKLY AND MOVE TO A PLACE OF SAFETY INSIDE A STRONG BUILDING…SUCH AS A BASEMENT OR SMALL INTERIOR ROOM.

SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS PRODUCE DAMAGE. MOVE INSIDE A PERMANENT BUILDING NOW TO BE SAFE FROM STRONG WIND GUSTS.

PLEASE REPORT HAIL…STRONG WINDS OR WIND DAMAGE TO THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE BY CALLING TOLL FREE…1 8 7 7 6 3 3 6 7 7 2.

&&

LAT…LON 4030 7706 4033 7691 4036 7694 4037 7702
4044 7700 4047 7695 4052 7696 4066 7671
4080 7631 4088 7629 4095 7620 4091 7599
4074 7576 4064 7598 4057 7601 4049 7643
4030 7613 3972 7671 3972 7733
TIME…MOT…LOC 1812Z 217DEG 39KT 4086 7566 4033 7678
3984 7680 3929 7751

That message conveys all of the information you need, but just look at all that CAPS TEXT! Is the pubic going to bother with reading all of that? My guess is no. Well, it would not be prudent of me to knock their message without offering up an alternative, so here’s what I would consider to be a more effective warning:

BULLETIN – EAS Activation Requested
SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING
National Weather Service State College PA
213 PM EDT TUE SEP 18 2012 UNTIL 315 PM EDT

* Pennsylvania central and south-central counties include:
Eastern Adams
Eastern Cumberland
Dauphin
Northwestern Lancaster
Lebanon
Schuylkill
York

* AT 206 PM EDT…POTENTIALLY SEVERE STORMS EXTENDED FROM
New Mahoning to Progress to Codorus to Bridgeport

* MOVING NORTHEAST AT 45 MPH

* HAZARDS
Damaging winds in excess of 60 mph.

* ACTIONS TO TAKE
Move inside a permanent building now.

* Locations in the warning include…
Skyline View and Manchester…
Bainbridge and Pottsville…
Hershey and Pottsville…
Harper Tavern and Elizabethtown…
Lawn and Locust Lake State Park…
Annville and Lickdale…

This will impact the following central Pennsylvania interstates…the Pennsylvania Turnpike between mile markers 230 and 280…I-78 between mile markers 0 and 8…I-81 between mile markers 54 and 139…I-83 between mile markers 4 and 50…I-283.

This will also impact the following major roads…the Harrisburg Expressway…the Harrisburg Airport connector…state highway 283…
route 11…route 11/15…route 15…route 22…route 30…route 209…route 322…route 322/22…route 422…state road 61…state road 94…state road 97…state road 309…state road 501.

A Tornado Watch remains in effect for the warned area. If a tornado is spotted…act quickly and move to a place of safety inside a strong building…such as a basement or small interior room.

Please report hail…strong winds or wind damage to the National Weather Service by calling toll free…1 8 7 7 6 3 3 6 7 7 2.

&&

LAT…LON 4030 7706 4033 7691 4036 7694 4037 7702
4044 7700 4047 7695 4052 7696 4066 7671
4080 7631 4088 7629 4095 7620 4091 7599
4074 7576 4064 7598 4057 7601 4049 7643
4030 7613 3972 7671 3972 7733
TIME…MOT…LOC 1812Z 217DEG 39KT 4086 7566 4033 7678
3984 7680 3929 7751

I have removed some of the redundant or otherwise unnecessary text, conserved ALL CAPS to highlight the most important areas and provided a more bullet-point style of displaying the hazards and impacts. The rest is secondary information that I left untouched, as it is not essential to communicate the warning.

A sample tweet might go something like this:

SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING in central and south-central Pennsylvania for damaging winds. More information at *LinkToWarning*. #PAwx

And that’s another thing: These IEMBot accounts the the NWS uses to automatically push products to Twitter. In my opinion, they would be more effective if the products were split into different accounts: One with warnings, watches and advisories, one with general forecasts and one for reports. This way people can choose which feeds to follow instead of getting spammed by NWS products. An example of what I’m talking about RE: the spam is the Blacksburg, VA NWS bot (sorry for singling you out, Blacksburg!).

From what I have seen, some of the NWS offices on Facebook have done a good job utilizing it. Compared to Twitter, Facebook is a completely different entity, and there is only so much you can do effectively on it. The best utilization of Facebook I have seen for the NWS is requesting and gathering reports from the public. It provides a good space for back-and-forth communication in a centralized location, with options to easily add photo or video evidence to support the report. It is slower-paced than Twitter, so information does not fly through the feed with the opportunity to get passed over. Also, there are no hashtags or anything to worry about when submitting a report to make it easy for the NWS to find.

The National Weather Service has taken the initiative to revamp the warning system in order to provide more efficient and effective communication, and it still has a way to go. But it is not a one-way street. If you have ideas on how to improve the warning system, contact the NWS and suggest them! There can sometimes be huge disconnects between what meteorologists think the public will understand and what the public actually does understand, and your feedback will help bridge this gap. Tell the NWS what might be confusing and what you would like to see changed. The NWS is here to serve you.