Monday, December 28, 2015

Just who is responsible for your safety in tornadoes?

Media coverage of the late fall/early winter tornadoes that have been occurring this year includes their entirely too common efforts to seek out and give voice to those victims who say "the tornado struck without warning", despite the facts almost always showing precisely the opposite.  In most examples, timely forecasts and warnings were issued in advance of the event, sometimes literally days in advance!  I've seen this happen almost without fail every time we have major tornado impacts - over the course of my 40-year career, this has been an element in media coverage virtually in every example.

I consider this to be irresponsible reporting.  According to their clearly biased view of things, if people actually received a warning, that's not news.  It's only newsworthy when the perception is that the meteorologists dropped the ball and failed in their responsibilities.  The media should be ashamed for perpetuating the public misconceptions about the weather information meteorologists are providing for them.  So how does this false perception arise so frequently and consistently?  Why can such interview subjects be so readily found?

I've not done the surveys and research, but it seems pretty clear to me that when people interviewed by the media make the counterfactual "it struck without warning" statement, what they mean is that no one contacted them personally and told them that they needed to take shelter.   Sometimes they say that they didn't hear any tornado sirens, as if that's the only medium by which warning information can be conveyed.  Sirens can reach people who are outside in the vicinity of a siren - they're not the best and most important mechanism for disseminating tornado warning information!

What this mostly indicates to me is that some people - often those whose story is featured by the media - are simply not accepting any responsibility for their own personal safety.  In many cases, there's information about tornado threats that's available many hours, and even days, in advance of the storms.  The main point of providing this information is simply to let people know that there's a heightened tornado threat and that they need to maintain situation awareness during the time before storms develop and approach them.  Although such forecasts are not inevitably followed by major tornado events, they're sufficiently accurate to serve their intended purpose of helping people be prepared should the need arise.  Even in a major tornado outbreak, most people are not affected.  It's only the unlucky few who find themselves in a tornado's path.  But everyone should be responsible enough to keep up with the developing weather situation in cases of an enhanced threat level.

Once storms develop, the warnings are issued - in most cases, at least 15 minutes or so before the impact of the approaching tornado.  The warnings are not perfect and many of them turn out to be false alarms.  As noted, even when tornadoes do occur, the vast majority of people are not struck.  The state of the science simply won't permit perfectly accurate, extremely precise warnings and the number of perceived false alarms can only be reduced slightly by applying the best knowledge science has to offer.  The cases with the types of storms that produce the powerful tornadoes responsible for most fatalities are already handled pretty well by the forecast/warning meteorologists.  The primary problem with reducing false alarms is that it increases the likelihood of failing to warn for a tornado.  So what do people want?  Relatively frequent false alarms, or relatively frequent failures to issue a warning for an actual tornado?  Those are the only options.

It's not now possible, nor is it ever likely to be possible, to issue tornado warnings only for people who eventually will be struck by a tornado.  That's an ideal very far from the reality of what we meteorologists can do.  Even given that, however, it's evident that tornado forecasts and warnings have been saving lives here in the US since they began in 1952.  That means many thousands of fatalities have been prevented by a system that isn't even close to perfect!  While the forecasts and warnings can be improved with improved science, the existing products are not "broken"!

There's an asymmetry in the penalty function for tornado warnings.  There are ZERO tornado fatalities in a false alarm!  However, failing to issue a tornado warning for a fatality-producing tornado has a much higher penalty.  The result is a tendency to over-warn.  Tornado warnings are biased toward overforecasting tornadoes because meteorologists have a binary decision to make:  a warning forecaster either warns or s/he doesn't warn.  It's possible to reduce the bias for overwarning by issuing warnings with graded threat levels - in effect, a probabilistic threat forecast - rather than a yes/no forecast.  But such a system has yet to be implemented operationally, in part because of public demand for a virtually nonexistent certainty regarding what will happen in the weather.

In today's world, most people have many different options by which they can receive tornado forecasts and warnings.  Almost all of them require the user to make the decision to become situation aware.  People cannot simply assume zero responsibility for their own safety without running the risk of suddenly finding themselves in mortal danger.  Information about tornado hazards is readily available but people must make the effort to seek out that information without having to be told to do so.  They must plan for tornado hazards well in advance and take it on themselves to seek out information about what they can do to reduce the threat to their lives (and even their property).

The media need to become responsible for telling an accurate version of tornado events, rather than continuing to reprise the counterfactual scripted version of events that reinforces the myth of "it struck without warning".  The media have some responsibility here and to my mind, many of them are failing to carry out that responsibility.  The men and women who dedicate their lives to providing the public with the most accurate and timely weather information they can muster deserve our respect and admiration for their selfless efforts to inform.  They do not deserve to be portrayed as failing in their duties when the facts are clearly contrary to the media script.  Their failure to achieve perfection is far from being entirely their fault.


John De Block said...

If the reporters would ask the question "were you aware a watch was in effect and/or warningwas issued", or better yet something along the lines of "where were you getting your weather information from", perhaps the dialog would change. I challenge our broadcast meteorologists to work with their perspective news departments and directors to help shape the story towards personal responsibility, as you discussed above.

Mike Estwick said...

Dr. Doswell,

Thanks for the post.

It's clear that there's a two fold issue, stemming from the same problem - lack of personal accountability. First you have the media, that doesn't let the facts get in the way of a good story, then you have people that expect everything to be done for them.

Case in point, the People Magazine article you allude to in your post for the media issue, then the personal one. Perfect example is how James Spann, Chief Met at ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, AL was roundly demonized on social media for pre-empting an NBA game on ABC to try to prevent people from possibly getting killed in the Birmingham tornado a few days ago. James and other meteorologists were away from their families on Christmas Day and trying to simply keep people out of danger.

Instead of appreciation for the sacrifice and consideration of others' lives ahead of theirs, James and other mets in other events are subjected to vitriol for cutting a pro game from one of the three-letter leagues, or some other TV. Never mind that the FCC mandates that any alert that trips the EAS is required to be broadcast to the masses. And as for the media, as you so well put, the facts show that there WAS plenty of warning. Anyone with internet access can go to the SPC webpage days before and see the outlooks hinting at something potentially big. But of course, those facts would get in the way of a good story.

Seems to me that the best solution is to force people to make a choice. We have digital TV stations, and most, if not all stations have a .1 and .2 available to them. If severe weather pops, put that coverage on the .1 and move the game or whatever to the .2 channel. If someone wants to watch the game so badly that that flip to the .2, and then they get swept away in a twister, I guess they made a choice, and got what was coming to them. If they can't get the .2 channel for whatever reason, then they either deal or figure out how to watch the game on their own. I don't expect that to stop all the vitriol and hatred unfairly directed to your broadcast mets, but at least people would be forced to do something besides the new favorite pastime of a lot of folks...sit n' bitch.

Mike Estwick
South Central Michigan Weather
Front Range Weather

Gene Norman said...

Dr. Doswell -
As always, you make good points. In addition to personal responsibility, people need to be educated. In my +20 year broadcast career, I was often struck by how many years times, even in a newsroom, there was confusion about the difference between a watch and a warning. In my current role with a notification provider, we spend a lot of time educating on this point. You also make good points about false alarm tornado warning, which leads some to complacency. We often teach that while you may be in a warning polygon, that doesn't mean you will be struck by a tornado. However, you could suffer the indirect impacts of air-borne objects which can become missiles. Finally, others in this thread commended those who worked in Birmingham on Christmas Day, even though a basketball game was on when a tornado was on the ground. Interestingly, while that part of Alabama was under an SPC slight risk on the convective outlook all day, a watch was never issued. So a heightened sense of awareness was not in place on a major holiday before the tornado warning. It is all clearly a work in progress with more work to be done. Some of that is tempering the public's expectation of forecast exactness.

Gene Norman
WeatherCall, LLC

Steve Hamilton said...

Dear Dr. Doswell,

Your comments are excellent, and I could not have come close to the great job you did here. My response has to do with the increasingly divergent sources of information for severe weather warnings. This is complicated by local media sometimes trying to take credit as "the most reliable source" of weather information. Being a Meteorologist who is also in the media, I understand this thinking. We all want to be the best. What concerns me is when people begin relying on things like Facebook, Twitter or other social media for their weather information. Most of the media do excellent coverage of impending severe weather events. However, I'm not sure that people realize the only "official" source for warnings is the National Weather Service. It's possible to encourage people to find reliable, accurate sources of information, and to not trust social media to "cover their butts" in the event of severe weather. Your comments about "situational awareness" and the individual's responsibility to take action, are spot-on, sir. I think as Meteorologists in the media, we have a responsibility too... to be consistent, accurate and fast. It is a multi-faceted problem, but I believe there are solutions. Thank you so much for posting this. You have the highest level of respect in my book, Chuck. - Steve

Brad Huffines said...

Dr. Doswell,

This is a good conversation, It takes me to another place, however. It is a place where when someone says to a media source, "It came without warning", we as a community of meteorologists accept the fact that to him, it did indeed come without warning. So what, then, is our response? In the weather enterprise, we are trying to market what we do. Yes, the weather departments of a media organization are part of that enterprise as well. How are we reaching out to those who are victims of storms who did not avail themselves to the warning technology out there. People buy televisions, spending hundreds, even thousands, which frequently act as devices to deliver warnings, though less so in households of non-broadcast television television programming viewing. Yet will balk at spending money on a product that will deliver to them a warning that is both 1.) accurate and 2.) timely. There are 5 steps, according to FEMA, in getting people to perform an action in a threatening situation. 1.) RECEIVE the ALERT: More and more challenging in today's world of 'free apps' pushed HARD by these same media outlets which have set back the relative surgical precision of NWS issued warnings since 2007. Someone downloads an app from a local broadcaster, where it is market to them is the end-all be-all app for everything news, weather and sports. So, they carry this app around with them, and look at the end of the day and see they have received 10 push notifications about robberies, car wrecks and political indictments, 2 weather warnings and one about their local head coach being charged with DUI. The 2 weather alerts were based on a countywide warning and were not received nor acknowledged. Just an example of how technology is making RECEIVING more and more challenging. 2.) UNDERSTAND: The difference between a Watch and a Warning. And what IS an Ice Accretion Advisory anyway? Enough said on that subject. 3.) BELIEVE: This media outlet cries wolf so much, I can hardly believe them. Especially in weather. However, the National Weather Service does have a high Q-rating in believe-ability. 4.) PERSONALIZE: This threat is for ME. I am IN the path. This could kill or hurt ME. This is a serious challenge. In automobiles, all of us have driven past that car wreck we have seen that makes us a believer in seatbelts. But few of us have stood in a tornado's path, smelled the scent of debris and death. Hard to personalize. 5.) ACT: Make a decision to move, or not to move. In other words, it takes 4 steps, all challenging in their own right, to reach the opportunity to make the one binary decision that matters. Act or not.

So, taking him at his word, "It came with no warning", because to HIM it did. How do we reach HIM. We can;t count on the media to educate him. We can't count on government to educate him. WE must educate him. The Weather Enterprise must take responsibility and act. In one accord. Is this even possible in this litigious and back-biting industry we find ourselves navigating through? We in the know, must take the lead in these conversations and move the enterprise into full on collaboration. And this is a challenge I am not sure the enterprise is willing to undertake. People are dying for us to act. And don't even know it.

Brad Huffines
Chief Meteorologist, WeatherCall Services
FEMA Instructor of Emergency Public Information and Social Media

Chuck Doswell said...

Brad Huffines:

I've said virtually identical things about the steps in the process of making warnings warnings effective for several years now, so I certainly don't disagree with the concept and the framework of your argument. But I'm not willing to give members of "the public" a free pass to avoid any responsibility when they have chosen - for whatever reason - to NOT avail themselves of the numerous opportunities meteorologists (and others) have provided to bring the public up to speed regarding the very real hazards that pose a very real threat to their lives - albeit one of relatively low probability. Just what do you propose in terms of actions that the "weather enterprise" should be doing that they are not doing now? Please be specific.

Steve Hamilton:

Thank your for your kind remarks.

Gene Norman:

It seems to me that the media need to accept some responsibility for educating the public about the issues where we are seeing shortfalls. It's doing no good whatsoever for the media to perpetuate myths about "it struck with no warning" at the same time they are patting themselves on the back for their weather coverage (clearly motivated by the ratings). I don't know the details of what was and what wasn't done regarding Christmas day event so I won't comment on those, but I will say that it is far from unheard of for a warning to be needed in situations wherein a watch was not issued. It's not a perfect scenario, but I don't claim the existing outlook-watch-warning process is always perfect. If people will accept some responsibility for their own safety in threatening weather, then the system need not be perfect to be effective.

Meteorologist Steve Hamilton - The Storm Report, LLC said...

John, you've got some good points there. It's got to be totally embarrassing to the Met at a TV station when a major event happens, and the reporter puts someone on who says "I had no warning". TV stations work a lot harder than Radio to not only point out severe weather threats during full weather coverage, but also when there is a threat, the put up a crawl. You're right that there needs to be a cooperative arrangement between reporting after-the-fact, and before the storm hits. In Radio, we offer our stations live coverage options. Many do not take advantage of that because of cost, or because they are completely automated. With most of our network, there is the option to update the forecast from our end, within an hour... which is not a solution for fast-breaking events. Radio needs to step up its game and take some of the responsibility for warning listeners. Radio has a 98% reach in US households, not to mention the myriad apps available. I've not been in TV very much, but Radio I know well. We are not holding up our end.

Mark L. Alexander said...

The unfortunate truth is that "it struck without warning" is going to be a very difficult trope to extinguish, for several reasons:
(a) All tragedy is personal; nobody warned the victims personally that the tornado would affect them, specifically. As stated above, this is a level of precision that is simply impossible.
(b) John de Block, above, has a point: If the reporters would ask the question "were you aware a watch was in effect and/or a warning was issued". Unfortunately, this could create a backlash and cries from competitors of "victim blaming". Plus, it's much easier to mindlessly parrot the same old "struck without warning" trope. Mindless parroting is mindless.
(c) Much more troubling is the realization that "struck without warning" isn't really a criticism of the NWS, or even the media. It's really a critique of reality itself, viz., real tornadoes don't behave like those in Twister, with several hours or even days of lead time, being able to predict intensity ("they're sayin' it could be an F5!"), a reliable pattern of rain-hail-utter silence before the tornado hits, etc., etc. Really, it's on the same level as a small child crying "no fair" when things don't go his/her way. Discuss...

Chuck Doswell said...

Mark L. Alexander

I agree that this "trope" (in the sense of: a common or overused theme or device) is not going to be easy to expunge, but that surely doesn't mean I have to accept it without comment. If people assume they are owed a personal message to warn them, that's a problem we need to fix.

I don't think it's "blaming the victim" to expect people to accept personal responsibility for their own safety. It's certainly not their fault that they are hit, but if they've done nothing regarding their personal safety, just whom else is there to blame? Being struck by a tornado is a rare experience that most of will never have. It can be difficult to accept that one is ever going to be hit, when it's such an unlikely event. Nevertheless, it's possible to prepare even for this exceedingly uncommon experience without bankrupting yourself, so it would make sense (at least to me) to make such preparations as you can.

Having a plan and monitoring the weather in threatening situations isn't exactly rocket science or unreasonably expensive. If you choose not to do anything, is it realistic to claim it was someone else's fault that you were hit?