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New Technology and Warnings Confusion

In 2006, the United States Congress passed and President George Bush signed into law the WARN Act. This act was meant to put in action a method for sending government issued alerts to citizens and visitors of the United States when there were local or national emergencies. After the WARN Act was codified, various agencies within the federal government, including FEMA, the FCC, and the National Weather Service (NWS), began working on a communications protocol for all agencies, local, state and federal, and their vendors to be able to use common technologies to communicate mass messages to the public (CAPS). IPAWS was born , followed by a cell-tower broadcasting system called CMAS, integrating weather alerts, CMAS/WEA. When launched it was widely touted by local and national media as “an alerting system that will send text messages to all cell phones in the event of NWS warnings”, that was only the start of the public’s misconceptions of this alerting system. What you don’t know, in THIS case, CAN hurt you.

This summer, one of the nation’s most prolific lines of damaging thunderstorms exploded across the Upper Midwest into the Mid-Atlantic States. Most Americans had never heard the term “Derecho”, but learned that night they can be deadly. That storm is blamed for 22 fatalities. Yes in the nearly 15 states affected, there was only 1 tornado warning issued. There were 2 tornado reports, 871 wind damage reports, and 57 hail reports. Yet, other than the single tornado warning, the CMAS/WEA system was silent that night. Why? Here is the list of warning types listed by its founders as life threatening. Notice that severe thunderstorm warnings are not part of that list. It is interesting to note that the rush to place CMAS/WEA into full operation was the 2011 Super Outbreak of Tornadoes from April 26-28.

In the 1950s, the Weather Bureau (which would later become the National Weather Service) began operating a national weather warning radio program, with a handful of transmitters. After the Super Outbreak of Tornadoes in 1974, a White House policy statement designated the NOAA Weather Radio as the sole government operated radio system to provide direct warnings into private homes for both natrual disasters and nuclear attack. The Warn ACT of 2006, and the following CMAS system of 2012 has seemed to have taken the same approach, instead of using 450 NOAA Weather Radio transmitters and the small percentage of US homes with operating weather radios, to a much higher level of alerting by using thousands of cell phone towers for mass cell-tower broadcasting of messages into newer enabled cell phones. When the NWS innovated the SAME code technology in the 80s, that allowed weather radio vendors to give people the ability to code in only the counties they wanted to be notified for watch and warning information.

Then in 2007, the NWS took a huge leap forward in weather warning technology and specificity, and began issuing Storm Based Warnings, that decreased the areal coverage of short-fuse severe weather warnings, like tornado, severe thunderstorm and flash flood warnings, by a whopping 70%! That is when companies like WeatherCall were born, in an effort to take these new storm specific warnings, compare them with the latitude and longitude of a subscribers location and end perceived over warning! With the help of private weather companies, the NWS Storm Based Warning program has been a great success.

WC_v_NWR_v_CMASCompare the maps attached in this series of graphics. This is an example of a NWS issued tornado warning for parts of Southeast Tennessee near Chattanooga. Note the size of the warning in the first graphis. Note the size of the WeatherCall Storm Based Warning alerting system, the exact size as the warning issued by the NWS. Note the size of the existing NOAA weather radio alert with SAME technology, warning every part of that county of the smaller tornado warning. Now take note of the CMAS/WEA estimated warning size, which used SAME county coding, and then broadcasts from participating cell phone companies’ towers into the affected counties. But because a cell phone tower broadcasts in all directions, parts of unaffected counties are now being warned, just when the NWS has been working on making the warning size and numbers of people alerted smaller and smaller.

Here is a quote from one of our WeatherCall Enterprise customers on a recent CMAS/WEA warning where a commercial customer was over-warned by the new alerting system, causing great confusion. “Last night, the FCC cell phone alerts (CMAS/WEA) were sent out, and was curious why they went to the cell phones, but no (WeatherCall) call. When I looked at the (WeatherCall) website, it explained it all, the tornado warning was just south of our radius(preset circle of 24/7 WeatherCall monitoring) which is perfect. The new FCC alerts (CMAS/WEA) were kind of a surprise. So I did some training with the staff this morning to inform them on how our system works again (WeatherCall Enterprise) and that those stubborn FCC alerts should not be cause of panic because that more of a generalized location, unlike how we are setup with this, the specialized radius of the plant.”

With existing systems in place, that are storm-specific, and 70% less of a warning ‘footprint’ than the generalized NWS countywide warnings pre-2007, CMAS/WEA will in the short term at the least add to the confusion possible when people feel overwarned. In the examples above, the sun could be shining in a surrounding county unaffected, and someone get their CMAS/WEA tornado alert, and be in no threat at all. Will that person act to protect themselves the next time this happens, and the next time, and the next?

Book CoverA book was written in 2010, and I will quote a portion of that book for you to make my final point of this article. “The value of NOAA Weather Radios, local tornado sirens, and other alert systems is derived from the value of the warnings being conveyed: If the value of the county warnings is low, the value of alert systems to convey these warnings will also be low. SBWs(Storm Based Warnings) refine the county warning, producing an inherently more valuable warning signal that most people will want to respond to, and as a result will increase the value of the emergency alert systems, assuming the alert system is refined enough to use the coordinates of the SBW polygon. The potential for improved response suggests that SBWs could easily lead to an eventual reduction in tornado casualties.”  Excerpt from Economic and Societal Impacts of Tornadoes, Kevin M. Simmons and Daniel Sutter, Page 170, ISBN 978-1-878220-99-8 2010 

Ask yourself. Is CMAS/WEA in its current form driving us closer or farther away from the citizenry feeling well alerted for real threats and taking action to protect their lives?


Brad Huffines


Brad Huffines


Meteorologist/National Notification Consultant, Media/Industry/Web, WeatherCall


Adjunct Instructor of Emergency Public Information / Meteorolgy, FEMA Emergency Management Institute

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