Who you gonna call?


If you read this blog regularly, you know that the northern Indiana office of the National Weather Service has been supplementing live and online independent-study SKYWARN storm spotter training with “chats” via Facebook and Twitter.

During one of the Facebook chats, a spotter asked an excellent question: If he sees a tornado, should he call the NWS first, or 911? The spotter reasoned that if he calls 911, local public safety officials would learn of the tornado and would relay the report to the NWS.

The NWS replied that they’d prefer to get the first call. This makes a lot of sense, for the following reasons:

  • 911 call centers get very busy answering calls and dispatching emergency responders during severe weather. They are often so busy, they don’t have time to call the NWS with the reports they receive. We should never assume that a report made via 911 will get to the NWS.
  • 911 call centers might be able to activate tornado sirens, but they cannot issue the official tornado warning that triggers NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) alerts, broadcast radio or TV alerts or cell phone wireless emergency alerts (WEA).
  • The NWS, on the other hand, can issue the official tornado warning, which will go to the 911 center, the broadcast media and directly to the general public via multiple channels, including NWR, WEA, smartphone apps, etc.

There can be an issue, however, with calling the NWS. Sometimes, their unlisted spotter report line is busy when spotters call, especially during a widespread event. That’s one reason that the NWS increasingly suggests that trained storm spotters use Twitter (include @nwsiwx or #nwsiwx in your tweet) or Facebook to send reports. These social media channels also allow spotters to add credibility to their reports by including photographs. During periods of severe weather, NWS monitors Twitter and Facebook constantly, so a social media report can actually reach meteorologists faster than a telephone report, especially if the phone line is busy.

Of course, for spotters who are also ham radio operators, ham radio SKYWARN nets provide another alternative to telephone and social media. And ham radio transmission allows other radio-equipped spotters to hear reports as spotters make them.