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A chance to weigh in on weather warnings

Posted on Wednesday, June 7, 2017 at 2:10 pm

Laura Myers

Around these parts, it’s all about the weather, and that’s also the focus of the Vortex SE 2017 research initiative, which is focusing on southeastern tornadoes, specifically in Northern and Central Alabama, three counties in Tennessee, and Mississippi.

And with Lincoln County’s track record when it comes to tornadoes and related types of severe weather, naturally it is also one of the three Tennessee counties included in the initiative.

Dr. Laura Myers, director of the University of Alabama’s Center for Advanced Public Safety, who is spearheading the research project, talked with members of the Local Emergency Planning Committee in May, seeking  their participation in the study, titled “Collaborative Research: Understanding How Uncertainty in Severe Weather Information Affects Decisions.”

Not only was she seeking their input, but she is also inviting the public to participate.

“Are we getting the information out there like we’re supposed to, are people receiving it, and if they are, what are they doing with it,” she said, describing the study, going on to explain that it is centered on what makes people take action when it comes to tornadoes and other types of severe weather. “We also want to figure out how to best get people to understand severe thunderstorms can produce straight line winds as powerful as tornadic winds.”

Research shows that people don’t typically react until warnings are issued, she said, adding, by that time, it could be too late to get out of susceptible structures and into a safe location.

From weather apps to NOAA weather radios, tornado sirens to alert notification systems, weather experts are doing all they know how to do to get their messages out to the public when severe weather is imminent. Notification, though, is still a major challenge, particularly given the rural lay of the land, sometimes spotty cell service and the fact that everyone doesn’t have a smart phone.

“NOAA weather radios are one of the best ways to get information out, particularly at night,” Myers said, “but the truth is you need all of those, because you don’t know which one will go off first, which one might fail, and you don’t know which one might work best given the situation.”

As part of the study, researchers are also evaluating forecasters in the Huntsville market, everything from how they convey their messages, to false alarms, their impact, and viewers’ appreciation or distrust.

The first survey will take about 20 minutes to complete, and there are brief follow-up surveys, one per month throughout the season, for a total of five surveys. Those subsequent surveys will take about 10 to 20 minutes to complete.

You may also be asked to volunteer for brief interviews and focus groups through this time period, but those are completely optional. The interviews and focus groups will allow Myers to get more in-depth information about how the weather warning process affects you directly.

The input of persons participating in the survey will help the weather enterprise determine how weather warnings are crafted.

“If we know that the graphics are confusing, or if we know that the modalities they use like a cell phone app doesn’t provide enough information, then that’s what we want to change. We want to make those changes,” Myers said. “We also want to know what works well, so we can keep doing that.”

To participate in the survey or learn more, visit https://universityofalabama.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_6A3lx0qPKTCl7HD.

Vortex-Southeast – an acronym for Verification of the Origins of Rotations in Tornadoes Experiment – Southeast — is in its second year of studying severe weather in the region. Supported by Congressional allocations of more than $10 million to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Severe Storms Laboratory, it also involves the National Weather Service and universities across the country.