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James Spann on the Growing Issues Surrounding the Tornado Warning Program

Sounds similar to the issues storm chasing faced 15 years ago when getting close became a thing. Now it's accepted behavior and no one cares. I don't care. It's done mostly within the shadowy reasoning of "research" and "spotting," although you don't need to be 15 feet from a tornado to confirm it's real. It's also similar to the crowding of roads issue. Again, no one cares anymore. Just post a complaint on Twitter regarding bad behavior and it's defended vigorously.

Two of the big problems in the SE US are radar holes and general visibility. Chasing there just became a thing in recent years when big money came into live broadcasts and chasers needed more real estate to play and sell themselves. It's all evolution of social media and no one cares.
 
While I agree that every little QLCS spin up doesn't need a warning, people will complain more loudly about unwarned tornadoes than false alarms. Perfection is unattainable, but that's the standard. So there is going to be overwarning. Yes, tornado emergency should be used rarely, but the reality is that each NWSFO operates independently and some are going to be more liberal with it than others. At least they are relatively uniform compared to the varying standards used to sound sirens.

Better building standards and radar coverage would be the most helpful steps in reducing tornado deaths, but unfortunately those are the most expensive items.
 
On April 27, 2011, F-3 intensity QLCS tornadoes injured a number of people and knocked out power to a million people. The squall line set the stage for the high fatality rates of the afternoon tornadoes -- people could not get the warnings. Those ≥ EF-1 tornadoes, regardless of type (land spout, etc.), clearly need warnings.

However, the attached LSR represents a tornado, if one truly existed, that should not be warned of nor should it be used to verify a tornado warning. This is the type of situation about which James has written.

When you combine that with the fact that more and more EF-3 tornadoes are going unwarned, it is an increasingly bad situation. We took an easy-to-understand warning program of more than a dozen years ago and have made it terribly complicated (just one example here: The New, 'Improved' 317-Word Severe Thunderstorm Warning ).

One of the things social scientists have told us, over and over, is that warning confusion = inaction. No one, and I mean no one, in the general public understands the difference between a tornado "emergency" and a "particularly dangerous situation" tornado warning.

We understand all of these warning types because we are meteorologists and weather aficionados. The public looks at storm warnings as inconveniences, at best. Fixing the increasingly troubled tornado warning program should begin with understanding the point of view of the general public -- the people to whom we are trying to provide lifesaving warnings.
 

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To Spann's point, when I lived in Kentucky, NWS Louisville used the "carpet bombing" technique as he calls it. When I returned to Fort Knox on TDY a few years later, it was pretty clear that they were still of that philosophy. I've always felt that it led to complacency among the public. I've repeatedly shared the same concerns about use of the TOR-E designation where there frankly needs to be certainty, and I believe also a population threshold as well. I think NWS Paducah did the best job I've seen yet of that particular balancing act during last December's event.

I do think that, in spite of the information available, people simply aren't going to inconvenience themselves to pay attention to what's upcoming. Lead times by and far are better than they've ever been, yet after every high end event (that was forecast multiple days out) we inevitably see someone being interviewed on TV saying "we had no warning."

To his point about "untrained" spotters, i would hope that he meant to include public safety in that criticism. I know of know major police department or sheriff's office that has their officers/deputies go through any formal training, and for firefighters, that seems to be contained primarily within volunteer departments. That is something I've thought of for some time, and were I asked (which I think is unlikely), I would be more than happy to put something together to help remedy that.
 
I do think that, in spite of the information available, people simply aren't going to inconvenience themselves to pay attention to what's upcoming. Lead times by and far are better than they've ever been, yet after every high end event (that was forecast multiple days out) we inevitably see someone being interviewed on TV saying "we had no warning."

To his point about "untrained" spotters, i would hope that he meant to include public safety in that criticism. I know of know major police department or sheriff's office that has their officers/deputies go through any formal training, and for firefighters, that seems to be contained primarily within volunteer departments. That is something I've thought of for some time, and were I asked (which I think is unlikely), I would be more than happy to put something together to help remedy that.

Drew makes a couple of important points. Last one first: My nephew graduated from the Kansas police academy. He, and later a representative, confirmed that police in Kansas get zero training on weather-related events. I had a conversation with that representative about adding training and they simply are not interested. That is fine, but we in weather science should realize that their reports are, at best, of equal value to the public-at-large's.

As to lead time, I believe the NWS is making a huge mistake with its oft-stated "one hour of lead time" for tornadoes. This goal is again included in the TORNADO Act before the U.S. Senate. I believe the one-hour is solely a justification for another mistake: Warn-on-Forecast.

Suppose you are home, at the office, or school: how long does it take you to get to shelter? In 99% of these circumstances it is 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Dr. Kevin Simmons' peer-reviewed research shows that fatalities go up with lead times of more than 15 to 18 minutes. My speculation as to "why" is that people will only stay in bathtubs or closets for so long.

The all-too-frequent, "we had no warning" has nothing to do with lead times. It is either, 1) an excuse for not paying attention or, 2) rejection of personal responsibility.

A dozen years ago, we had a simple tornado warning system that worked well. We are now laying layer upon layer of complexity (see: Bad Science: Meteorology's "Onesie" Problem ) on the tornado and severe thunderstorm warning system and then are surprised it is failing: lead-times halved and PoD's dropping from 73.3% to 59.2%, even with calling 25 yard area of broken tree branches a "tornado" to verify a warning.

Yet, when something is proposed to improve the system like gap-filler radars, the NWS rejects it ( https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2020/11/21/radar-gaps-weather-service/ ). In 2017, Congress asked me to provide a list of locations for 20 gap-filler radars and the northern Arkansas - southern Missouri gap was #10 on the list.

NOAA's senior management has no one who knows anything about weather. I don't see that changing anytime soon.

So, the only solution I can think of is a National Disaster Review Board (modeled after the NTSB) that could also solve the very serious problems with FEMA (ask anyone in Lake Charles about them) and other U.S. disaster forecast and response agencies.
 
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So, the only solution I can think of is a National Disaster Review Board (modeled after the NTSB) that could also solve the very serious problems with FEMA (ask anyone in Lake Charles about them) and other U.S. disaster forecast and response agencies.

This is a great idea, but the Government is no longer structured to solve such problems, so it's not going to happen.
 
Drew makes a couple of important points. Last one first: My nephew graduated from the Kansas police academy. He, and later a representative, confirmed that police in Kansas get zero training on weather-related events. I had a conversation with that representative about adding training and they simply are not interested. That is fine, but we in weather science should realize that their reports are, at best, of equal value to the public-at-large's.

SMH. In Kansas, of all places. But these are the people blocking roads to keep people (including chasers who may have spent days forecasting the event and traveled a thousand miles to be there to see it) "safe" from tornadoes.
 
Part of the problem here is societal: when it comes to severe weather warnings, we tend to apply an asymmetric penalty function to "hit" vs. "miss". It is apparently considered akin to mass murder to miss (i.e., not warn on) a severe weather event, whereas it is merely a "*sigh*, whatever..." eye-roll kind of reaction to a false alarm. Therefore, the priority at nearly every WFO is strongly in favor of a very high POD...FAR be damned.

I like the part of Mr. Spann's essay where he says
James Spann said:
We can’t catch every EF-0 tornado that is down for two minutes. It is simply impossible.

I agree, and we need to stop fussing so much over those really meager spin-ups that take down a few trees or demolish a shed. The Cry-Wolf syndrome is real, and unfortunately we (society and the science) haven't done enough over the past 15 years or so to improve upon this much.

But part of that is indeed the difficulty of the science - forecasting tornadoes with *any* lead time is very difficult, and will likely not substantially improve over the next few decades no matter what we do. Forecasting tornadoes requires way more observational and computational capacities than the taxpayers of any first-world country are willing to pay for or allow to be allotted to R&D, and even then, there are theoretical constraints on the predictability of tornadoes that will probably always limit predictability to less than one hour. And until we're all walking around in a perpetual AR or VR world with HUDs that prompt whatever we're doing with severe weather warnings and immediately contact us with live news coverage of an ongoing event, there will always be people who don't get the warning or who receive the warning but don't heed it. So this problem will probably never go away.
 
I am a CFO, not a meteorologist, but forecasting is an important part of my profession too. It is an area of overlap that adds a dimension of interest and enjoyment to my avocation as a storm chaser and weather geek… I appreciate the opportunity for lateral thinking between two seemingly unrelated disciplines, and I like to try to apply knowledge from weather forecasting - in particular, *communication* of forecasts - into my work.

More than societal, it is human nature to put a premium on forecasts of bad news compared to forecasts of good news. Or, conversely, to use Jeff’s succinct phrase, there is an “asymmetric penalty function” on failing to predict bad news vs failing to predict good news. This certainly happens in my work, where my failure to predict a downturn in the business will result in much more criticism, while my failure to predict positive results will likely be ignored or considered a pleasant surprise.

Although, I am reminded of a story a divisional manager told me early in my career, that shows this is not always the case… His division had experienced a surge in revenue and profit on a new customer program that had not been anticipated, and the parent company executives were in an uproar about it. The divisional manager told me, “I couldn’t understand why they were upset, and I asked them why they wouldn’t be happy about it. Their answer: If you didn’t see the good news coming, how are you going to see the bad news when it comes?”

I think there is an analogy there in the relationship of PoD and FAR, and a lesson in the perceived credibility of forecasts when there is a focus on erring in one direction more than the other.

On a related note, we all know that people in general do not do well handling probabilities or uncertainty, so ever getting to “warn on forecast” seems like a ridiculous proposition, because even if we had the ability it would never be 100% accurate. There is no good option: either imply the warning is a certainty, or try to communicate the probability; both will create a public-relations mess.
 
I am glad there are more chasers/spotters in the SE…but I would be even happier with cameras and more sensors on poles than on the roads.
 
When I was a Warning Preparedness Meteorologist at the NWSFO in Topeka from 1987-1989 I would do a day long weather training class at the Kansas Highway Patrol Academy in Salina that included severe thunderstorms and tornadoes as well as winter weather. But not sure if this is done anymore as it has been a long time since I did this.

I have also been seeing this Spring a rapid increase in tornado warnings along squall lines, which is puzzling to me. When I worked at the WFO Topeka 1992-2000 as a lead forecaster and WSR-88D program leader we saw many shallow inbound-outbound velocity couplets along squall lines where the inflow and outflow airflows caused eddys. I can't recall one that caused a tornado, but frequently only some minor wind damage that was also present along the length of the squall line itself. I would think this trend will lead to more false alarms over time.
 
As to training for law enforcement and other public safety folks, I know a lot of WCMs try very hard to get them training and retrained often. But as the old saying goes - "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink". Just because they are offered it doesn't mean they all go to it or take it seriously. Another issue is even going to spotter training every year doesn't make you a good spotter. This isn't a dig at the training - it is a reality of the complex atmosphere. I started out as a spotter, but if you wait until it comes to your county/city, you don't see much and don't get good at recognizing the non-textbook examples (which is most of what we see in the field). You have to practice to get good (true with any sport, hobby, job, etc).

Chasers who are both trained and experienced are key to getting the ground truth. The problem we have now (beside chasers who don't report) is chasing has become so popular there are lots of inexperienced and untrained chasers. All of this adds to the signal-to-noise ratio and that makes a NWS Met working warning OPS job even harder.

Is there room for improvement in the warning system - sure. Are we total broken - I don't think so. Almost every week in the spring I find myself thinking it is amazing no one was killed in a given storm. That is a testament to how far we have come. But it is a journey - and we still have a long way to go.
 
Sounds similar to the issues storm chasing faced 15 years ago when getting close became a thing. Now it's accepted behavior and no one cares. I don't care. It's done mostly within the shadowy reasoning of "research" and "spotting," although you don't need to be 15 feet from a tornado to confirm it's real. It's also similar to the crowding of roads issue. Again, no one cares anymore. Just post a complaint on Twitter regarding bad behavior and it's defended vigorously.

Agreed that ego and some type of profit (footage, attention, etc) seem to have become more important to society at large than good old fashioned reasonableness, common sense, safety, integrity. Sadly this all challenges organizations like NWS, emergency managers, etc who must deal with this new public and try to sort the new benefits from the new dangers it all poses. It is a sad state of affairs when so many jump to defend reckless behavior.

I actually think the warning system technically speaking is excellent and has saved so many lives and dollars for a small expenditure. Too many warnings is only a problem if the public responds without reason. We have a public spoiled by the dopamine reward loop. Right now, too many put their selfish needs ahead of safety regarding weather because they want a reward or not to be inconvenienced (dopamine / instant gratification responses). Most people seem to first go film an approaching hazard before taking cover. Others ignore the hazard as inconvenience or not a real threat due to the popularity of risky footage. Many chasers and now even locals put getting such footage over all other thoughts, and when the public watches it it waters down the seriousness of taking shelter.

It is pretty obvious to me the general public has a middling to poor safety culture right now, and a large swath of chasers a poor one just by their conceited and careless attitudes. These are generalizations, but to get to less incidents, everyone in the group has to be on board with the safety culture and not cutting corners. The message has to be repeated and respected, and outliers and rebels have to be called out. In this analogy to industry, the NWS and emergency managers are supposed to be doing the leading as managers and training the employees (chasers and public) what is and is not acceptable in our safety culture. Pretty hard to make any headway with a petulant, selfish, know it all audience who defends bad behavior and is not even willing to be introspective for an instant. That is the biggest challenge to warnings in my opinion - not how to warn and how often, but how to convince people to care and stop being so into themselves.
 
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