Americans risking their lives listening for sound they can’t hear

“There are millions of people across this country putting their lives on the line by listening for a sound they can’t hear.”

Relying on outdoor warning sirens is dangerous (photo of a siren)That’s my favorite line from a recent blog post by weather journalist Dennis Mersereau on “The Vane” blog.

Mersereau makes a strong case for a difficult change in mindset: relying on warning technology that’s more modern and reliable than the ubiquitous outdoor warning siren.

I’ve written about this topic myself. I’ve seen (as I imagine Mersereau has) more than one post-tornado report from the National Weather Service (NWS) that indicated victims failed to seek shelter after the NWS issued a warning, because they didn’t hear sirens. This has been true even for people who knew about the warning because they heard it on TV, saw it on Twitter, etc.

The main thesis of Mersereau’s post is absolutely correct: Communities will save a lot more lives spending money on free NOAA Weather Radio receivers for citizens than in upgrading or installing outdoor warning sirens.

But despite that facts that Mersereau presents, the average citizen doesn’t see it that way.  You see, we have relied on outdoor warning sirens for so long (ever since the post-WWII re-purposing of air raid sirens — and that’s a long time) that they’ve become a strong tradition. I’d argue they’ve become an almost inextricable part of our culture.

As a case in point, (as I pointed out in my 2014 post linked above), I invite you to watch an Indianapolis Colts football game, where the stadium public address system often plays a warning siren sound effect. Why? Not because a storm is on the way, but because Colts staff members know that an emotional response to that sound is  ingrained in fans.

The fact that the Colts use that sound effect in that way is evidence that outdoor warning sirens have become a part of our collective psyche. That’s hard to fight.

More evidence comes from the vehement arguments that siren-lovers have posted in comments beneath Mersereau’s blog post. As Mersereau put it in a tweet to me, “People believe in their sirens like a religion.”

That, my friends, is the real problem.

It will take a lot of public education (like Mersereau’s blog post) over a significant period of time to change that.

In the meantime, citizens will continue to expect their elected officials to spend money on an outdated, ineffective warning technology.

A weather safety tip you might not have thought of: Footwear

Photo of feet wearing flip-flops with red X superimposed. Flip-flops are poor footwear for severe weather days. Indiana Severe Weather Preparedness Week. #INWxReady #WRNSandals, especially flip-flops, which are so popular when the weather is warm, are poor choices for severe weather days.

My feet get warm easily. I have a pair of Chacos brand sandals that I wear almost every day during warm weather. But not on days that I might need to serve as a storm spotter.

If severe weather is coming our way, I usually change into a sturdy pair of ankle-supporting hunting boots I bought on sale at Cabela’s, even if I’ll be staying home during the storm.

Why? On word: debris.

National Weather Service photo

After a storm passes, I might have to walk through storm debris, which can include pieces of trees and pieces of buildings. The walking surface might be uneven. Some of the debris might have sharp edges.

I choose to protect my feet from all that, a practice I learned back in the 90s when I served as an emergency medical technician and communications technician on a Disaster Medical Assistance Team. It’s how I dressed my feet every day, even in tropical weather when assisting the victims of Hurricanes Andrew and Marilyn.

My advice: If you’re a storm spotter or storm chaser, get yourself a good pair of boots to wear anytime you’re in the field, even on hot, humid days. And no matter who you are, if you ever have to take shelter in your house from a coming storm, take the most protective footwear you have with you to the basement, interior room, etc. Put them on after the storm, before you step outside to survey the damage. Your feet will be much safer.

Test didn’t activate entire tornado warning system

The National Weather Service (NWS) issued a simulated tornado warning this morning for the entire state of Indiana, but not all communication channels activated.

In an earlier blog post, I advised readers that if they don’t receive the test warnings today (another one is scheduled for 7:35 p.m. EDT), that could be an indication that they’d miss a real tornado warning at the same time of day.

This turns out not to be the case!

I apparently misunderstood information from the NWS and incorrectly believed that today’s test tornado warnings would activate the entire warning system, including Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), smartphone apps, text message systems, etc.

The morning test, however, apparently activated only NOAA Weather Radios and the Emergency Alert System (local broadcast radio and TV). The morning test did not trigger WEA or other warning systems.

So, if you didn’t receive the test this morning, it might be because you have inadequate access to warning information, or the incomplete nature of the test might be the only reason.


If you’re in Indiana and don’t hear a tornado warning today, that’s a problem!

See an important update to this story!

Indiana statewide tornado test 2015 graphic 10:15 a.m. EDT and 7:35 p.m. EDT March 19, 2015

The National Weather Service will issue two test tornado warnings today; one at 10:15 a.m. EDT and another at 7:35 p.m. EDT. The NWS will use the same procedures and technology it uses for real tornado warnings.

If the test times pass without you becoming aware of the tests, that very likely means that if the NWS issues a real tornado warning at that time a weekday, you might not get the warning.

Not knowing about a tornado warning could cost you your life!

So, make a mental note today to think about this at around 8 p.m. tonight. If you realize you missed either of today’s tests, take steps to improve your ability to receive weather warnings. I blogged about ways to do that last year. Here’s a link to that blog post.

Today’s test will help public officials know whether all systems are working correctly. But perhaps more important will be any gaps the tests demonstrate in your personal severe-weather preparedness.

Tornado alarms to sound tomorrow: Will you hear the tests?

See an important update to this story!

If you’re in Indiana tomorrow and don’t hear a tornado warning, be concerned

Photo of weather radio
A programmable NOAA weather radio, one of the devices that should activate for two tests of Indiana’s severe weather communications systems tomorrow (March 19, 2015)

If you’re in Indiana, your smartphone might make an annoying noise twice tomorrow. Your NOAA weather radio should beep at you. You might hear outdoor warning sirens. That’s because the National Weather Service (NWS) and other agencies will conduct a statewide test of severe weather communications systems as part of Indiana Severe Weather Preparedness Week.

The NWS will issue test tornado warnings for the entire state of Indiana twice tomorrow, once at around 10:15 a.m. EDT and again at about 7:35 p.m. EDT. The warnings will activate weather radios, Wireless Emergency Alert-equipped smartphones, etc. the same way a real tornado warning does. The only difference will be the wording of the warning, which will make clear that it’s just a test.

tornado-sirenUnlike your weather radio and smartphone, NWS warnings do not automatically trigger outdoor warning sirens. Local emergency agencies control the sirens manually. Many communities will sound their sirens during the tests but some might not participate in the tests. For example, during a previous year’s test, Allen County, Indiana officials decided not to activate the county’s outdoor warning sirens because skies were cloudy that day.

Whether officials activate outdoor warning sirens, however, is a bit of a moot point, because you’ll probably be indoors when the tests occur and very, very few people live where they can hear outdoor warning sirens indoors.

So, if by 8 p.m. tomorrow, you realize you never knew when the warning tests happened, that’s a good sign that you need to improve your ability to receive warnings sometime between now and the arrival of severe weather season (which is just around the corner)!

Indiana Severe Thunderstorms Kill

It’s “only” a thunderstorm warning? Really?

Indiana non-tornadic thunderstorm wind deaths, 1990-2014. The large number in 2011 is primarily due to the multiple fatalities at the Indiana State Fairgrounds when a severe thunderstorm blew down part of a concert stage. Source: National Climatic Data Center Storm Events Database. 32 total deaths. Worst year, 2011 with 10 deaths.
Indiana non-tornadic thunderstorm wind deaths, 1990-2014. The large number in 2011 is primarily due to the multiple fatalities at the Indiana State Fairgrounds when a severe thunderstorm blew down part of a concert stage. Source: National Climatic Data Center Storm Events Database. Background image: Radar base velocity, June 29, 2012 derecho, 6:36 p.m. EDT.

“It’s only a thunderstorm warning.” Have you ever said that? Have you ever heard anyone say it?

Complacency about severe thunderstorms is dangerous but common. Why is it dangerous? Non-tornadic thunderstorm winds killed two people in northern Indiana last year. Throughout Indiana, they killed 32 people from 1990 to 2014 (see graph above). Non-tornadic (“straight line”) severe thunderstorm winds killed all 32. Tornadoes were not involved in any of those deaths.

If you believe you’re not in danger as long as there’s no tornado, you could be the next victim.

What might surprise you is that the winds of a severe thunderstorm can be stronger than those of a tornado, and often are. For example, an EF1 tornado on the Enhanced Fujita scale produces tornadic winds of from 86 to 100 mph. The “derecho” line of severe thunderstorms that struck northern Indiana in June of 2012 produced a measured wind gust of 90 mph at the Fort Wayne international airport. That’s stronger than the bottom end of the EF1 tornado range!

What can a 90 mph wind gust do? According to the Beaufort wind scale that storm spotters use to estimate wind speeds, 90 mph wind can do considerable and widespread damage to structures.

The northern Indiana office of National Weather Service ( NWS) issued 114 severe thunderstorm warnings in 2014. Such warnings might therefore seem quite common, which can lead to complacency. It’s important to know, however, that the NWS issues those warnings only when a storm is producing or is expected to produce either one of the following:

  • Wind gusts of 58 mph or stronger
  • Hail of one-inch or more in diameter

Winds of 58 mph can uproot trees and do considerable structural damage. One inch hail can be traveling at 100 mph when it hits the ground (or your house, car, or worse, your head).

So, the next time the National Weather Service issues a severe thunderstorm warning, take shelter, just as you would for a tornado warning. Don’t become the next person on the state’s tally of non-tornadic thunderstorm wind deaths!

An even earlier “heads up” on severe weather

Earlier, in commemoration of Indiana Severe Weather Preparedness Week, I wrote about the important distinctions between watches and warnings. Readers who saw that post will recall that the National Weather Service usually issues weather watches hours before severe weather develops in the watch area.

You can also know about the possibilities of severe weather days in advance, if you know where to look.

In addition to watches, the NWS Storm Prediction Center (SPC) issues convective outlooks. In this case, “convective,” refers to thunderstorm development through atmospheric instability. Convective outlooks include maps that show various risk levels for severe thunderstorms in various parts of the country as far into the future as six days.

For example, on April 27, 2014, a large, violent tornado killed 16 people in Vilonia and Mayflower, Arkansas. Five days earlier, the SPC indicated a risk of severe weather in that area on a convective outlook map (see below).

Day 4-8 convective outlook from April 22, 1014 for Indiana Severe Weather Preparedness Week
“Day 4-8 Convective Outlook” map issued by the Storm Prediction Center on April 22, 2014, five days before a tornado killed 16 people in Arkansas. Note the green area labeled “D6,” which includes the area where the tornado eventually formed and which indicated a 30 percent or higher probability of severe thunderstorms within 25 miles of any point on April 27.

Anyone who wants an advance look at severe weather probabilities can look at SPC convective outlooks on the SPC website. During severe weather season, I review every morning at least the “Day 1 Convective Outlook” (which shows risks for the same day) and the “Day 2 Convective Outlook” (which shows the next day’s risks).

For a more localized outlook, I also view the “Hazardous Weather Outlook” that our local NWS office issues. This text-only product indicates local forecasters’ assessment of the risks of hazardous weather within their coverage area the same day (day one) and for the following week (days two through seven).

So, what can you do with this information? When an outlook indicates a risk of severe weather in a few days, you can:

  • Develop and/or review a plan for what to do if sever weather strikes.
  • Encourage others to develop a plan.
  • Assemble a disaster supply kit and pet kit.
  • Check your NOAA All Hazards radio for fresh batteries and operation.

By knowing about outlooks, watches and warnings when they’re issued, you can keep from being surprised by severe weather.

Severe weather watches and warnings: Do you really know the difference?

Tornado graphic for Indiana Severe Weather Preparedness Week 2015Governor Mike Pence has proclaimed March 15 through 21, 2015 as Severe Weather Preparedness Week in Indiana.

Throughout the week, I’ll use my “W9LW’s Ramblings” blog to help build awareness of important severe weather concepts that everyone should know.

If you’re a trained storm spotter, you’ll already know most of the stuff I’ll write about. In that case, I encourage you to use Indiana Severe Weather Preparedness Week to share this information with your family, friends and co-workers. After all, you are probably the closest thing to a weather expert who those folks know personally.

Today, I’ll start with one of the most basic of severe weather concepts, but also one of the most important; knowing the difference between a severe weather watch and a warning.

The National Weather Service (NWS) has used the term, “watch,” since August of 1965 but I still talk to people who don’t really understand what a watch is and others who refer to watches as warnings and warnings as watches.

Here’s a simple table to help you remember the difference. The information below applies to both tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings and watches.

Warning Watch
Your response Take shelter now! Remain alert, determine where you’ll take shelter if necessary
Meaning Severe weather is imminent, has been detected by radar and/or confirmed by trained weather spotters Conditions are favorable for the development of severe weather in and close to the watch area
Timeframe Minutes before danger arrives Usually hours before severe weather occurs
Geography Very local, sometimes less than a county, based on storm location and track Regional, multiple counties, often crossing state lines, based on atmospheric conditions

Bottom line: When the NWS issues a warning, it’s time to take action. Now. When the NWS issues a watch, it’s time to make sure you’ll know about a warning if one comes out later and time to make sure you know what you’ll do if a warning comes out.

Please share this! Do you know someone who doesn’t really understand watches and warnings? Use the buttons below to share a link with your social networks, etc.

Bogus winter storm “forecasts” spreading on social networks

Do not be alarmed. Despite what you might have read on Facebook or Twitter, no big winter storm is forecast to strike the Midwest or Northeast this weekend.

As WANE-TV meteorologist Greg Shoup writes in a his blog, “There are no significant weather patterns this weekend across the entire eastern United States.”

Apparently some attention-starved social network users are forwarding information about a winter storm that happened March 12 of 2014, but without the critical information that it was last year!

Greg correctly points out in his blog that we should not believe everything we read on social media sites. Even when weather information on Facebook and Twitter is current (versus a year old), much of it comes from amateur meteorologists who share worst-case scenarios based on the outputs of single numerical models of the atmosphere, hoping they can claim to be the first to advise the world of some major weather event.

I prefer to get my weather information directly from the National Weather Service (NWS). The NWS is completely taxpayer-funded. Unlike other sources of weather forecasts, the NWS does not crave attention, nor rely on advertising (which relies on viewership) to stay in business. In my experience, if the official NWS forecast does not mention a big weather event, it’s because there’s a good reason that NWS meteorologists lack confidence that the event will occur.

You’ll never see me write my own forecasts here on this blog, on Facebook or on Twitter, because I’m not a meteorologist. I share information from true professional meteorologists who I trust, mostly NWS employees and occasionally very credible broadcast meteorologists, like Shoup and his colleagues at WANE.

So, don’t believe everything you see on social networks and please, don’t share weather information with others unless you know and trust the source.


91 attend Fort Wayne SKYWARN storm spotter training

For the first time in a couple years, meteorologists from the northern Indiana office of the National Weather Service (NWS) personally conducted training of SKYWARN storm spotters in Fort Wayne Feb. 17. Warning coordination meteorologist Michael Lewis, KG4KJQ and meteorologist Michael “Skip” Skipper presented the training to an official total of 91 attendees. Approximately half of audience members raised their hands when Lewis asked hams to identify themselves.

Audience at NWS SKYWARN storm spotter training, Fort Wayne, Indiana, Feb. 2015
Figure 1: Ninety-one people attended NWS SKYWARN training in Fort Wayne Feb. 17 (Photo by Whitley County emergency manager Charlie Heflin).

The session included the usual information on the role of the spotter, storm development, local severe weather climatology, recognition of various weather phenomena, spotter safety and reporting procedures. A detailed description of the training is beyond the scope of this article, which will instead touch on a few of the highlights, especially those portions that were new this year. If you missed the training, NWS plans two sessions near Fort Wayne this month:

  • March 16, 6 p.m. ET, Paulding, Ohio
  • March 19, 6 p.m. ET, Bluffton, Ind.

Detailed information about both sessions can be found at on the NWS Northern Indiana website.

One new feature of the training this year was audience participation via electronic polling. The presenters evaluated audience knowledge before and after the training by asking them to respond to questions via text message, Twitter or Web page form. Responses appeared on the projection screen in real time.

Thunderstorm spectrum discussed

One highlight of this year’s presentation was a discussion of the thunderstorm spectrum (see figure 2). It ranges from single-cell “pulse” storms, to two forms of multi-cell storms, to the classic supercell thunderstorm. Large, strong tornadoes originate from supercell storms, but such storms are rare in the 37-county warning area (CWA) of the northern Indiana NWS office. Multi-cell storms, especially “derecho”-type squall lines can produce winds as strong as weak tornadoes, which is why spotters and the general public should not ignore severe thunderstorm warnings. It’s important for spotters to understand that, especially in the northern Indiana CWA, storms can change type one or more times during their existence.

Thunderstorm spectrum slide from NWS SKYWARN storm spotter training. Single-cell pulse thunderstorm, multicell cluster storms and squall lines, and supercell
Figure 2: Slide from NWS spotter training presentation, used with permission.

When it comes to tornadoes, 82 percent of twisters in the northern Indiana CWA create damage at the EF0 or EF1 levels of the enhanced Fujita scale (see figure 3). Note that EF0 tornadoes can have winds as week as 65 mph. Severe thunderstorms can and often do produce much stronger winds. Also note that EF0 and EF1 tornadoes are very difficult for NWS Doppler radar to detect, sometimes developing and dissipating between radar scans. Less than one percent of storms in the northern Indiana office’s CWA reach the EF4 damage level, with wind speeds of 166 mph or greater.

Enhanced Fujita scale with probabilities in northern Indiana county warning area
Figure 3: Slide from NWS spotter training presentation, used with permission.

Convective outlooks change

Situational awareness is an important part of spotter preparation and safety. The NWS Storm Prediction Center’s (SPC) convective outlooks are important situational awareness resources. Those outlooks look different now (see Figure 4). The new day one through day three convective outlooks have three risk categories between “general (non-severe) thunderstorms” and “moderate risk,” instead of the former single “slight risk” category. A “marginal risk” category now falls between “general thunderstorms” and “slight risk” and new “enhanced risk” category falls between “slight risk” and “moderate risk.” An SPC video briefing that fully explains the change in convective outlooks is available on the SPC’s website.

Categorical convective outlooks have new categories between "general thunderstorms" and "moderate risk"
Figure 4: Slide from NWS spotter training presentation, used with permission.

Also related to situational awareness is the announcement that the NWS office’s home page layout – and possibly navigation and URLs – will soon change. If you have bookmarked, for example, the severe weather briefing page on the northern Indiana office’s website, you might need to update your bookmarks after the change.

New spotter mnemonic: T.E.L.

This year’s training presentation uses a new mnemonic acronym to help spotters remember what the NWS needs to know (see Figure 5): “T.E.L. us.”

The “T” stands for “time.” Spotter reports should contain the clock time at which the spotter observed the event, even if it’s happening while the spotter sends the report. For example, rather than saying “now,” or “two minutes ago,” spotters should say “4:38 p.m.” or “1638 Eastern time.”

The “E” stands for “event.” This is the part of the report that contains detailed information about what the spotter saw, for example, hail (by size), a wall cloud, funnel cloud, tornado, wind or lightning damage (described), flooding, etc.

The “L” stands for “location.” This part of the report should contain a specific location, for example, “Allen County, Indiana, two miles northwest of Grabil,” or “In Fort Wayne, near the intersection of Coliseum Boulevard and Vance Avenue.”

Note that the reporting criteria are different than NWS warning criteria. For example, the NWS issues a severe thunderstorm warning for any storm that it expects to produce either winds of 58 mph or greater or hail of one inch or more in diameter. But the spotter reporting criteria are winds of 50 mph and hail of any size.

SKYWARN storm spotter reporting criteria from NWS Northern Indiana training presentation
Figure 5: Slide from NWS spotter training presentation, used with permission.

Finally, the NWS included in this year’s presentation a new reporting method matrix (see Figure 6). As in previous years, the meteorologists strongly recommended the use of the Twitter social media channel, while taking care to avoid discounting the importance of ham radio.

A primary advantage of reporting via ham radio is that others listening to the same frequency will simultaneously hear the report, aiding in the situational awareness of those who are monitoring. Another advantage is the resiliency of ham radio and the fact that it continues to work during Internet and cellular telephone failures. Disadvantages of reporting via ham radio include:

  • Inadequate volunteer staffing of the ham station at the NWS office often means that net control stations must re-file the reports by other means (e.g. telephone or an internal NWS Internet chat system).
  • When the ham station at the NWS office is staffed, the operator there must write down each report and then hand it off to a meteorologist, creating a certain amount of delay.
  • Until and unless the NWS issues a “local storm report” based on the spotter’s report, the information in the report is available only to those who are monitoring the frequency, which often includes few of the many spotters who are not hams and have no equipment with which to monitor.
  • Ham radio systems currently in use for SKYWARN provide no means of including photographic data with spotter reports.

Advantages of the Twitter social media channel include:

  • The channel does not rely on the limited availability of volunteer operators at the NWS.
  • Reports show up immediately on a computer in the NWS office, without relay or transcription.
  • Reports are visible immediately to anyone who has access to the Internet, including other spotters, emergency managers, members of the news media and the general public. As Lewis put it at one training session this year, “Call me and you and I know. Tweet me and the whole world knows.”
  • Reports can include photographs or video of events being reported, aiding in the NWS’ ability to validate the reports
  • The capacity of Internet channels is virtually unlimited, enabling the NWS to encourage sub-criteria reports.

Note that on the reporting methods matrix, the NWS encourages spotters to report winds of less than the normal reporting criteria of 50 mph (the approximate speed at which structural damage begins to occur) when using social media or the “mPing” app (more on that below). But for ham radio and telephone reports, the minimum wind is 50 mph. This is a sign that NWS really wants much more information from the field than it has received in the past but understands the limited capacities of channels such as ham radio and telephone.

For spotters who choose to use their Internet-connected mobile devices to file reports, a relatively new option is the Meteorological Phenomena Identification Near the Ground (mPing) app from the National Severe Storms Laboratory. The app is available for both the Andoid and iOS platforms and originally only accepted precipitation reports. The current version also allows users to send hail, wind damage, tornado, flood and other reports. Reports sent via mPing show up directly on Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS) terminals in NWS offices. A disadvantage of mPing is that all reports are anonymous and as such, users cannot identify reports as coming from trained spotters.

SKYWARN storm spotter guide to preferred reporting methods from NWS Northern Indiana trainnig
Figure 6: Slide from NWS spotter training presentation, used with permission.

In conclusion, I encourage all hams who are spotters to become familiar with Twitter, especially those who have Internet-connected mobile devices (e.g. smart phones). At the same time, I also encourage all hams to continue to make reports via ham radio, even if they’re also reporting via Twitter. This will assist in the situational awareness of spotters who are on the ham frequency as well as those who are only able to monitor Twitter.

I have become active on Twitter (@RadioW9LW, if you’d like to “follow” me) and will be happy to provide any assistance I can to any spotters who want to know more about Twitter. You can reach me via the “Contact W9LW” form in the right-hand column of this blog.