Why the use of storm-based warnings may mean less alerts sent to you

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Mass confusion during and following a severe weather event in the Tennessee Valley on Saturday, April 22 demands a closer look at storm-based warnings.

What are they? How are they used? Why are less people receiving warning information on their phones or tablets?

What are storm-storm based warnings?

Many people may not be aware that severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings are no longer issued for entire counties.

The National Weather Service (NWS) began issuing storm-based warnings on October 1, 2007. Storm-based warnings were developed in an effort to make warnings more specific and more accurate.

The old way of issuing warnings typically meant many hundreds (or even thousands) of people got an alert about a storm that was never going to affect them.

Think about Madison County for a moment.

Map of Madison County, Alabama (Image: WHNT News 19)

Imagine a scenario where a severe thunderstorm is producing a tornado in Limestone County, north of Athens.

The tornado is expected to track northeast into far northwestern Madison County (along the red arrows drawn).

Tornadoes are very small compared to whole counties. Even the largest tornadoes are usually not much more than one mile wide. With this in mind, why should someone in Madison, New Hope, Brownsboro, or someone on the Arsenal be bothered by a warning for a tornado that will not affect them?

In the old way of doing things, a tornado warning would include all of Madison County. Tens of thousands of people would get an alert, but would never experience the tornado. For them, this would be a “false alarm.” This is exactly why the NWS decided to start issuing more specific warnings based on the storm itself, rather than the county in which the storm was located.

Real-world examples

Numerous severe storms affected north Alabama on Saturday, April 22.

Three tornado warnings were issued for north Alabama during this severe weather event. Each of these warnings verified: NWS teams confirmed three separate tornado touchdowns after doing damage surveys following the storms.

The tweet posted above shows one of those tornado warnings. A tornado warning was issued for a very small area in Jackson County at 5:40 p.m. The warning expired at 6:15 p.m.

The only official town included in the warning was Skyline, as seen in the image above.

People who live in Woodville, Section, Rosalie, Pisgah, Flat Rock, Paint Rock, Scottsboro, Hollywood, Bridgeport, Bryant, and Stevenson more than likely did not receive an alert on their phone or tablet – they did not need one.

The same thing happened with the other two tornado warnings issued that day.

‘My phone didn’t go off!’

We heard this over and over in the days after the severe weather.

While there could be many reasons why someone did not receive an alert on their phone, in most cases it is because they were not in the warning.

Modern weather apps like Live Alert 19 use GPS-based technology to know where you are located. Live Alert 19 even has a feature that allows a person to let the app follow their location at all times.

This technology coincides with storm based warnings to only warn people who need to be warned. The idea is quite simple: if you need to be bothered about a storm, it will bother you; if you do not need to worry, it will not beep at you.

Storm-based warnings are more accurate and more specific than county-based warnings (Image: NWS)

Source of the confusion

This onion has many layers.

Many of the issues can be blamed on old technology used by weather radios and some outdoor warning siren systems. Both of these devices serve a purpose, but the technology in them is beyond antiquated.

Weather radios and most outdoor warning siren networks are designed to alert entire counties, even when storms may only affect a small part.

Imagine a scenario where your weather radio goes off, you hear a siren, but your phone remains silent. Which one is right? What do you do?

It is totally understandable in this case to think something may be wrong with your phone. Maybe there has been a malfunction or maybe it does not have the proper settings turned on so that it knows where you are.

Recall the Jackson County example. Someone living in Section starts hearing a nearby siren and hears the loud alarm on their weather radio. The phone or tablet remained silent. Who wouldn’t be confused?

In reality, the storm was miles and miles away and never posed a threat to Section. The phone or tablet app was not in error – it was working exactly as it was designed to work.

The technology is available to make outdoor warning sirens follow the storm-based warnings. It is extremely costly, however. Madison County is one example in north Alabama where the outdoor warning siren network is not county-based. The system is designed to only trigger sirens that fall within the warning drawn by the NWS.

Part of the blame for the confusion may fall on the people who communicate warning information.

During severe weather events, you may hear “severe thunderstorm warning issued for DeKalb County” on television or see that message scrolling at the bottom of your television screen.

How can someone not be confused when they hear that a severe thunderstorm warning has been issued for DeKalb County, but their warning app did not alert them?

Broadcasters (including myself) need to make a conscious effort to no longer use that kind of phrasing simply because it can be misleading and it is likely a source of confusion.

For some people, it is simply a matter of wanting to be aware of what is happening around you. There are some who want to know there is a tornado 20 miles away, even if it is not going to affect them; others only want to have to act when they absolutely must.

Think back to the Jackson County example, again. If you live in Scottsboro and have a friend who lives in Skyline, you may see them suddenly talking about a tornado warning. You immediately think, ‘What tornado warning? Where is my alert?’ There is a very good reason why the person in Skyline received the alert: the storm was coming right at them; it was never going to touch Scottsboro.

Multiple ways to get warnings

We always have and always will recommend having multiple ways of getting severe weather warning information. Technology can and does fail, and it only benefits the user to have several backups.

The takeaway from this post is that severe weather warnings do not work like they always have. Warnings are now only for specific, sometimes very small areas within counties.

The next time severe weather happens and you do not receive an alert when you think you should have, try not to assume something is wrong with your phone or tablet. It may be working exactly like it ought to.