"Error on the Side of ‘Safety’"

Note: In view of the National Weather Service’s decision to experiment with tiered tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings in Missouri and Kansas beginning April 1, the concerns raised in this posting become more relevant than when it was first published on February 4. I’ve added additional information in maroon type and elevated it to the top of the blog for today. If you are not aware of the NWS’s plan (they still have not made a public announcement) see the two postings bellow.

 

Last week, I criticized journalism is general, and ABC News in particular, about lazy journalism when it comes to tornadoes. I wrote, pertaining to their inaccurate reporting there was “no warning” of the Alabama pre-dawn tornadoes,

This seems to confirm my suspicion that there is a key on journalists’ word processors that says “there was no warning” and they simply press that key every time they have to do a story about storms.

There seems to be another group that suffers from either lack of knowledge about the rapid progress we have made in the field of storm warnings, inertia, or timidity: Emergency managers.

As I have been gathering data from around the nation for the purpose of reviewing last year’s tornado season, it seems emergency managers have a mantra:

Nick Crossley, director of emergency management and homeland security for Johnson County, said the warnings on Saturday night were necessary throughout the entire county.
“We erred on the side of caution,” Crossley said. “It’s much better to sound the sirens and warn people than not to sound the sirens.”

Crossley was responding to criticism about sounding the sirens — twice in one evening — in areas that were never under a warning.

Or, take a look at this video from KMOV-TV, St. Louis, after I criticized St. Louis County for sounding sirens in areas more than 25 miles (with the tornado moving away) from the tornado. They have the capability to sound sirens selectively (i.e., NWS polygons) if they wish to do so.

He said, “I’d rather be safe than sorry” and that we “never know” which way a storm is moving.

So, how bad was the overwarning he was defending?

May 25, 2012, St. Louis.

Above are two images I took during the storm. At left is the funnel cloud for which the warning was issued. At the bottom of the photo is the Mississippi River separating Missouri from Illinois and, at lower left, the south leg of the Gateway Arch.

At right is a photo of the local television storm coverage. “STL” is downtown St. Louis where my hotel room was located. The orange arrow denotes the “hook” echo which shows the tornado’s location and what prompted me to leave my room and go to a location in the hotel to take a photo of the funnel (note: it was past me, I was safe) as it moved northeast. There are no other storms to the west yet the sirens are going off as far away as Pacific, MO (purple arrow). 

Below is a Google Map image showing the location of the funnel (F) moving northeast (thick red arrow). The orange arrow from the above image is carried over. Pacific, MO is located with the purple arrow as above. Pacific is 35 miles behind the tornado threat which is moving northeast, away from Pacific!

I’m not talking about a mile or two safety buffer, I’m talking about tens of miles! St. Louis County has the technological capability to sound the sirens only in areas actually threatened but they choose not to use it. 

Now, take a look at this story from WFIE-TV in Indiana from January 18th (updated Jan. 25th) that came to my attention yesterday February 3:

The National Weather Service allows each county to decide which sirens to set off during a storm. 
14 News found some Tri-State counties are now choosing this option, while others say their policies won’t change.
40 sirens sounded Tuesday morning, getting attention all across Vanderburgh County for a warning that was only issued for the northern section.
Meteorologists clarified on Twitter that the warning did not include Evansville, even though the sirens were going off.
“Our policy is always to sound them off through the whole county,” said Vanderburgh County EMA director Sherman Greer.
Greer says it’s a policy that errs on the side of safety. [emphasis mine]
“Meteorology and the weather and everything is not an exact science,” Greer pointed out.
That is why he’s not comfortable with switching to that new option, from the National Weather Service, that would allow him to set off only those sirens located in the affected part of the county.
“If something strays a little bit further than that area, then we’ve got a problem.”
“I think it’s a good idea. I’m not convinced yet that they are quite as precise as we would like to see it,” said Henderson EMA Director Larry Koerber.
Across the river in Henderson, Koerber also fires all 32 of his sirens, no matter where the storm is in the county.
“We don’t want to miss something and say ‘Well,if the path is there in the southern part of the county’ and sure enough it makes a left turn and winds up in the middle of Henderson,” Koerber says.

We keep hearing from emergency managers; and there are many more examples I can cite:

Error on the side of safety.
Activating sirens over and over and over in areas where there is no threat (deliberately sounding them in Evansville even though the tornado warning did not include Evansville). Is that really erring on the side of safety?

Or, is it really erring on the side of protecting the emergency manager from second guessing (i.e., fear of criticism if a tornado occurs without the sirens going off)?

There is also the complementary comment that meteorologists “don’t know” where the tornadoes are and/or don’t know where they are going to go. This was true 40 years ago during the early years of trying to warn people of tornadoes. We weren’t very good at it then. “Better safe than sorry” made sense in the 60′s and 70′s and, in some areas with poor radar coverage, even the 80′s.
Today: This deliberate and geographically exaggerated overwarning makes no sense in an era of Doppler and Dual-Polarization radars, debris balls, GPS storm reports, etc., etc. As I previously reported on the blog, 99+% of the tornado fatalities in 2011 occurred in areas that were under both a tornado watch and tornado warning before the fatality occurred. Meteorology does know where the storms are going to be.

So, here is the problem:  The evidence is rapidly accumulating that “erring on the side of safety” is doing nothing but training people to ignore warning sirens. 

I mentioned last week that I’m working on a project that pertains to last year’s tornadoes and I originally wanted to get into this subject when I was farther along. But, the news report from Evansville tweaked my conscience.
It is long past time to stop warning areas tens of miles away from the tornado threat. The polygon warnings, while not perfect, build in enough margin of safety to allow sirens to be sounded in and along the polygon. 
Heck, build in a 1-2 mile buffer (easy to do with today’s technology). But stop sounding sirens in areas tens of miles away from any threat!

Between the media inaccurately yet constantly telling people how bad the warnings are and emergency managers sounding the sirens 20 miles behind the tornado it is almost a wonder that anyone pays attention. But, with good television and radio reporting, many are able to intelligently respond and save their lives in spite of these handicaps. But, there is no reason for an environment where making the correct decision has to be so hard.

Based on the preliminary research I have done pertaining to 2011, there is no question that complacency cost lives. I’ll have more when I am finished with the work.

There is still time in many jurisdictions to implement a new policy in time for the 2012 tornado season. Great started, please. Otherwise, I fear we are going to more lose precious lives to complacency.

ADDITION Saturday 11am:  I’ve received some surprising (at least to me) feedback about this post. Apparently, a number of readers do not know that I have written a book documenting how accurate storm warnings have become. For those interested, it is Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather.  Warnings is a non-technical read that explains how courageous scientists built the system that managed the amazing feat of getting both a watch and warning in place in advance of 99% of the fatalities in 2011′s record tornado season.

While there is still work to be done, there is no question that meteorology has advanced storm warnings to where they should be accorded the level of respect that medical diagnosis receive.

If you doubt that is the case, please read the book (OK with me if you go to the library or buy the less expensive ebook version!) before 2012′s tornado and hurricane seasons. Doing so might save your life!

Addition (Feb. 18): I learned last week that Johnson County, Iowa became the fourth jurisdiction since Joplin to announce that it will start sounding sirens for severe thunderstorm warnings, including 1″ hail, which is why this posting is so important. The key to saving lives is getting people to take action and they will only do so if they feel comfortable with their decision. 

Combined with the National Weather Service’s plan to complicate the tornado warnings and give their local offices the option of adding the sentence, “A tornado is possible.” to severe thunderstorm warnings, we are setting ourselves for confusion, delays seeking shelter, and — potentially — the loss of additional lives. 

16 thoughts on “"Error on the Side of ‘Safety’"

  1. Mike: The network stories about "no warning" are likely written by writers who have never been out of Manhattan (New York City NOT Kansas) and who consider "The Heartland" anything west of Philadelphia.
    I'd point out the news staffs at the network level have no meteorological training; they'll call the meteorologist at the local network O+O for some ideas, but given their skewed opinion of the 9/10th of the nation that isn't in their orbit, this is what you get: an inordinate amount of time describing bad weather in the Northeast, as if the world will stop(it doesn't).

  2. When I did TV weather in Waco in the late 80s (Waco still thinks about the F5 in the early 50s) the old WSO and EM had a great system. Remember, this was before NWS Chat, polygons and the comms we have today. If they issued a tornado warning for McLennan County and felt the sirens should be sounded for Waco, the NWS would put "McLennan County and the city of Waco" in the text of the bulletin. If the NwS felt it wasn't enough of a risk for Waco, they'd just put "McLennan County" in the TOR. EM knew when they got the clue from the NWS to hit the button and us TV folks knew if it said "and the city of Waco" that the sirens would be going off at any moment. If it didn't we'd explain why there was a tornado warning but the sirens weren't going off…for example the storm would miss Waco or was in the east moving away.
    The story from STL is just disturbing. The EM is clueless and they have one of the best NWS offices in the country there watching the situation.

  3. What training do these people have? Can they not see with their own eyes what the warning polygons indicate? Do they really think that a storm is going to make a U turn and circle back on itself traveling in retrograde motion for 25 miles? One has to question the technical competence of someone making that type of statement.

    I think that there are three parts to this issue. the first is a product of the EM community group think. Warn everyone for everything no matter how low the risk. Even people with little understanding in Psychology know what that outcome will be. Our ancestors called it crying wolf.

    The second issue is liability. They think that this limits the liability of them and the department from any and all lawsuits. Also this turns warnings into a brainless activity, one size fits all approach. This is the favored methodology of lawyers and Washington DC. While this may be true, it costs lives due to warning fatigue. When the case studies are complete for the Joplin Tornado you will probably find that this fatigue will have caused several deaths, thus negating the justification for warning everyone.

    One unknown factor is the department of homeland security. Given their reactionary methodology and poor thought processes institutionally, one could easily see this "warn everyone all the time" coming from them. No matter what reasoning you give them they do not budge. Why subject the flight crew with the same procedures as the passengers? They control the fate of the aircraft with their own two hands. Only an Idiot would think that they would need a box cutter or nail clippers to take down the aircraft. Unfortunately, this department must be filled with them.

    The NWS has done its job well by advancing the state of the art in warning generation. Now we must drag the luddites kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

  4. This really upsests me hearing this from EM personnel. Makes me wonder why I have a job as a Met. if people aren't taking our job seriously.

  5. @01:22pm. People ARE taking the warnings seriously (just read the "Warnings" chapters about Greensburg) which is why TV is the #1 — by far — source. The TV mets are light-years ahead of the EM's.

    @Richard P. I hadn't thought of the DHS mentality here. Good point. With regard to liability, I suspect that "warn everyone, all the time" will come back to bite them eventually.

    Thanks for the comments.

  6. Last year I drove through many towns within tornado warning polygons, some with sirens going off, and some without. A number of towns in 'dead silence' were in the direct path of a milewide EF3 tornado. It was sad to honk horns and drive by (to evacuate ourselves) and see confused and unconcerned looks of people inside their homes that later were reduced to rubble.

    Here is my opinion.

    When you have a large number of exceedingly high tornadic weather indices in a region that is presently spawning numerous tornadoes, don't bash anyone who warns their population. I have seen tornadoes, on the ground 10 miles from where GR, Threat Net, and other online weather sources show gate-to-gate velocities and a confirmed hook echo. I advise not to buy-in to forecast egos when your life is at stake.

    I was in one area where there was just blue sky, and the polygon extended to my area, and I laughed. Eight minutes later I was directly under a rapidly developing mesocyclone that spawned a tornado three minutes afterwards. I am glad someone knew something I didn't, their warning got me thinking in time.

    Just an opinion.

  7. Here's another anonymous guy's point.

    While most tornadoes track in a northeasterly direction, tornadoes do not always track in a northeasterly direction.

    Tornado Damage Survey April 9, 2011
    http://www.crh.noaa.gov/news/display_cmsstory.php?wfo=dmx&storyid=66541&source=0

    Windsor EF3 Tornado damage path in NW direction
    http://rammb.cira.colostate.edu/case_studies/20080522/images/Entire_Path.jpg

    1980 Grand Island Tornado Damage paths
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d3/Gitorpath1.jpg

  8. Rob, I do not. It was on the radio, of all places. Kathleen and I both heard it and we heard the same thing.

  9. Since it’s better to be safe than sorry, I’m issuing a tornado warning for the entire planet for the next 40 years. You just don’t know for sure when or where a tornado might hit. So let’s sound the sirens 24/7 just to remind everyone that there might be a tornado sometime, somewhere.

  10. Thank you for any other excellent post. Where else could anyone get that kind of info in such a perfect approach of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am at the search for such information.