Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Target Fixation - A Tornado Danger

There have been a host of videos making the rounds in the past few years showing people evidently so fascinated with tornadoes, they seem not to notice the tornado is coming towards them!  I've shaken my head over such videos - how could people be so stupid?  But a recent conversation with a friend reminded me of an incident on 05 June 1995 near Dougherty, TX when I was so fascinated by what I was seeing in my camcorder viewfinder, I was oblivious to the reality that the tornado was coming right at us!  Thanks to the insistence of my chase partner - my most excellent friend, Al Moller - I was alerted to the situation in plenty of time for us to move to a position well out of the path, and we were able safely to capture some dramatic images and video of the storm.  A similar thing happened to me this year, on 31 May with the El Reno tornado - this time, I was roused from my trance by Tempest Tours tour director Bill Reid.  Again, I was brought back to reality in plenty of time for us to escape.  Perhaps coincidentally, there were a lot of similarities between those storms. 

I mention these incidents in my chasing experience because I believe that anyone can become 'target fixated' - specifically, even me.  Somehow, seeing things unfold through a viewfinder can create a loss of situation awareness.  What we see on our camera screens has a sort of unreality that detaches us from what's actually happening.  Rather than making smug comments about how stupid the people are who fall victim to this, I need to remind myself that I too can behave stupidly when mesmerized by an unfolding tornado event.

The expression 'target fixation' apparently has its roots in WWII, where fighter pilots became so focused on their targets, they literally would fly into the ground!  There can be little doubt that some of the most dramatic tornado videos going around the Internet are a direct result of this, so it behooves all of us to be aware that none of us are immune and we need to look away from our viewfinders from time to time, in order to assess the situation - to ensure we haven't lost our situational awareness to a dangerous extent. 

As a sidebar to this, the ready availability of near real-time radar in a chase vehicle can create something similar to target fixation.  There have been some incidents where people in the vehicles had their heads down staring at their laptop radar displays, without paying much attention to the reality unfolding around them.  When you're in or near the "bear's cage" you need to pop your head up out of your laptop screen frequently and look at what's actually going on around you!  The radar data you're using to make navigational safety decisions may be several minutes old, and your safety margins may be less than what the laptop screen is suggesting.

Part of being a responsible storm chaser is accepting the responsibility for your personal safety!


Garrett Fornea said...

Frequently popping one's head out of the laptop screen isn't enough. I would argue that we need to keep their heads out of the laptop. I'm not saying we shouldn't watch the radar; I'm just saying that we shouldn't get dependent on it. In my opinion, we need to spend way more time observing the storm than watching the radar - unless of course, one of us is Dr. Wurman in a DOW. As a friend and mentor taught me, one should chase primarily on visuals - maybe I'm taking it too far, but to me visuals take a lot of precedence over the radar. Of course, my early chase years were with minimal radar access, so I'm used to the idea; but my mentor brought it to my mind as a principle.

Come to think of it, you guys didn't really use radar at all back in the day, did you...?

James Correia, Jr said...

A valuable discussion, as I had not heard of target fixation previously. The word complacent came to mind many times when thinking of quite a few of the chaser accounts during 31 May, but it doesnt really fit - we are well aware of the dangers of tornadoes. To further complicate matters the size of the various "targets" ranging from subvortices to the larger tornado, and possibly tornado obscured by rain all probably wreak havoc on situational awareness. In some way this discussion reminded me of the OODA loop, where the presentation of this tornado prevented orientation, effectively stalling decision-making. Interesting to think about.

Brett Thompson said...

Perhaps I have been gifted with situational awareness from the numerous strategy based games I play, or simply by birth, but I was one of the first people in the van that day in El Reno. Looking back though I probably could have stayed longer and stood closer to get a better shot... chalk it up to inexperience around large tornadoes.