Why do some storm chasers call 911 vs NWS?

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.

University demonstrates questionable understanding of tornado warnings http://w9lw.farlowconsulting.com/2017/11/05/university-demonstrates-questionable-understanding-of-tornado-warnings/
The Spotter Network website can tell members where they are, which NWS office to call, and the phone number for that office.

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.

2 thoughts on “Why do some storm chasers call 911 vs NWS?”

  1. In Oklahoma, for the most part, emergency managers know when the sirens sound … and NWS would be notified of the reason for the sirens sounding while they are going off.

    SpotterNetwork is most functional when SpotterNetwork users update their contact phone numbers so folks in the Emergency Operations Centers may call them for additional information or, better yet, to get initial information when there is weather threatening the area.

    The SpotterNetwork reports also show up in the local NWS office NWSchat channel (also monitored by local emergency managers).

    https://www.weather.gov/stormready/ok-sr gives a list of StormReady communities in the State.

    1. Clearly, considerable diversity exists in the way various jurisdictions handle tornado reports to 911. Here in Indiana, for example, many emergency manager (EM) positions are part-time. In those counties, an EM might not be involved in operations during a severe weather event. In one of the biggest counties in Indiana, the EMA has more than one full-time person, but those staff members are not routinely active during severe weather events, especially not those events that occur outside normal office hours. There, PSAP staff handles tasks such as outdoor warning siren activation, without involving EMA staff. Given such diversity, if a spotter or chaser doesn’t know the procedures of a local jurisdiction, the most reliable way to warn the most people of a tornado as quickly as possible is to call the NWS. I have no objections, however, to placing a call to 911 after finishing a call to the NWS. And of course, if a spotter or chaser sees someone in need of emergency assistance, he or she should immediately call 911 on behalf of that victim, even before reporting a tornado to the NWS.

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