After a small tornado outbreak in Indiana and neighboring states yesterday, I’ve been looking at some tornado videos published by storm chasers. On at least two of them, one can hear on the audio track references to calling 911 to report the tornado. On one, you can hear a chaser instructing a public safety answering point (PSAP) operator to activate warning sirens.
Here’s my question: Why would storm chasers — who one would expect to be familiar with the National Weather Service (NWS) warning system — call 911 instead of the NWS?
Why would storm chasers — who one would expect to be familiar with the National Weather Service (NWS) warning system — call 911 instead of the NWS?
Sure, a call to the local PSAP might lead to activation of outdoor warning sirens, which might alert some nearby residents — especially ones who are outdoors — that something is going on. But it won’t lead to activation of NOAA weather radios, wireless emergency alerts on cellular phones, or alerts on broadcast channels until and unless the NWS knows about the tornado and issues an official tornado warning.
You might think that a call to 911 will get a report to the NWS. In reality, that’s not necessarily true. I’ve attended several meetings of an NWS integrated warning team, where PSAP representatives have repeatedly said that during periods of severe weather, they’re so busy answering phones, that they don’t have time to call NWS. And an NWS warning coordination meteorologist has personally told me that his office yearns to know what citizens are reporting to 911, but can’t get the information.
Granted, calling 911 is easy, especially for chasers whose anxiety levels have reached a near panic stage as they stare down tornadoes. After all, calling 911 when something bad happens is almost a reflex. But a single call to the NWS would get life-saving information to a whole lot more people who are in the path of the storm.
There is a challenge, though, especially for chasers who are always moving from county to county (and for some, state to state) as they try to get in position to see tornadoes. They must always know exactly where they are and they must know which NWS office to call. Adjacent counties are not always served by the same NWS office.
The first part (knowing exactly where you are) is challenging enough, when you’re driving through unfamiliar territory. I’ve heard numerous spotters and chasers, who, while trying to make a report to NWS offices, were unable to say exactly where they were, much less where the funnel cloud or tornado was. Knowing what county your are in and knowing what NWS office serves that county is even more difficult. In truth, any NWS office will accept a tornado report from outside its area and get that information immediately to the correct office. So calling the “wrong” NWS office is probably still better than calling 911, when it comes to warning the most people.
But there’s an even better solution. Members of Spotter Network, Inc. can use a combination of location-reporting software on their smartphones and the Spotter Network website to learn immediately the phone number of the NWS office that covers whatever location they’re in at the moment.
By using the location-beaconing software, staying logged into the Spotter Network website and bookmarking the “Submit Severe Report” page above, chasers and spotters can learn the best NWS number to call with a couple touches of their smartphones. The result will be warning a lot more people a lot sooner than calling 911 can.