Friday, June 24, 2011

columns about weather warnings and sirens

Apologies for the lack of posts this week. You can blame the summer. Or me being out of things to talk about. In any case, here's this week's from the St. Clair Times. You're welcome.
False alarms? Would no alarm be a better way?

Like most people in this state, I grew up reading and hearing about the importance of severe weather warnings.

And, like most people, at some point in my life I learned to ignore those warnings.

Just about everybody at this point knows the drill when it comes to severe weather: we all went through tornado warnings in school, where we were forced out into the hallways and crouched down until a teacher told us it was time to go back to class. For some reason, I have a memory of being very young and ordered to take a heavy textbook with me to protect my head; then at some point, I was told my hands would suffice, instead of the book. I’m not sure why this happened and never really thought enough to ask.

In any case, one can only do so many drills and hear so many sirens and receive so many predictions of catastrophic storms before one becomes … well, somewhat complacent.

“OK, here we go again.”

Birmingham meteorologist James Spann understands this phenomenon all too well, which is why he created a minor Internet stir this week with some suggestions for overhauling the weather warning process.

Spann is known by many for his suspenders, his tireless efforts during any severe weather threat — the man actually got death threats in January 2009, when winter weather threatened to preempt Alabama’s national-title tilt with Texas — and for his encyclopedic knowledge of his coverage area (“the tornado is right there by that store … I think it’s Texaco now, but it used to be a antique shop”). He’s also been notable as someone who doubts the science behind climate change and for his willingness to speak to school and church groups, far and wide.

According to Spann, complacency in response to severe storms may have cost some lives during the deadly outbreak on April 27.

“The FAR (false alarm ratio) for many NWS offices when it comes to tornado warnings is in the 80-90 percent category,” Spann wrote on the ABC 33/40 weather blog last week. “I say this is simply not acceptable. Sure, the POD is excellent (probability of detection), but if most of the warnings are bad, then what good is a high POD?”

The most notable of his suggestions: Spann believes it’s time to take down the outdoor warning sirens that most of us associate with emergencies.

“Sirens are not efficient, reach a limited number of people, and can’t be heard in most homes, schools, and businesses,” Spann says. “And, in most counties, the sirens don’t sound only in the warned polygon, they sound county wide. In some cases, this means you are hearing a siren when the actual tornado threat is over 40 miles away.

“Sirens were born during the Cold War with the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s … their time has come and gone. If the sirens are taken down, then you KNOW you won’t hear one next time there is a tornado threat. … Most southerners still have the ‘siren mentality,’ and that no doubt killed people April 27.”

It’s an interesting point. At my house, I’ve heard sirens for storms in three different counties — St. Clair, Jefferson and Shelby — and my first reaction when I heard the warnings April 27 was something like, “Awesome … now I’m awake at 5:30 a.m.”

Then again, I doubt any of us will ever think of severe weather quite the same way again.

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