Call it the “OMG!” of storm warnings.
To make warnings of dangerous weather clearer and more convincing, the National Weather Service has beefed up and simplified the bulletins it issues.
The new bulletins were tested last year in Kansas and Missouri, and this spring the test has been expanded to 12 more states, including Nebraska and Iowa.
Those who rely directly on weather service communication — emergency managers, the news media and others — say the change is welcome.
“I hope they never change back,” said Brian Woldt, emergency manager for Dawson County, Neb. “This is much faster.”
The change adds explicit descriptions of the damage expected and in an easier-to-read format, said Mike Moritz, a meteorologist in the Hastings office of the weather service.
During last year's test, residents in Conway Springs, Kan., were warned that spotters had seen a powerful tornado approaching their town: “You could be killed if not underground or in a tornado shelter. Complete destruction of neighborhoods is likely,” the bulletin read.
That kind of language emboldened the news media and emergency managers in their own response, according to the weather service. No one was killed in that tornado or the roughly two dozen others that occurred that day, including one in Wichita.
A post-storm survey convinced the agency of the value of the new warnings so, as a result, the experiment was expanded beyond Kansas and Missouri, said Jim Keeney, weather program manager for the central region office of the weather service.
Keeney said the new warning addresses a central problem during severe weather: Convincing people that a threat is real so they spend less time outside or watching the news for confirmation.
The new warnings should make it easier for the public to distinguish between storms that pose little jeopardy and those that threaten public safety or property.
“We want a trigger that prompts someone to take action faster,” Keeney said.
Darrin Lewis, emergency manager for Nebraska's Buffalo County, said the new warnings will help emergency responders prepare more quickly for post-disaster response.
“We can gear up when we hear the warnings and be more prepared afterward,” he said. “It's a huge benefit.”
Emergency managers also are embracing the revised format of warning bulletins. Easy-to-read tag lines have been added to the bottoms of the notices, summarizing the danger.
So, why does this matter?
National Weather Service bulletins have tended to disregard one of the fundamental rules: readability. Besides containing significant technical language, they're written entirely in capital letters.
Newspapers, advertising agencies and others that work with the written word understand that the contrast between upper- and lower-case letters makes text easier to understand. The all-capitalized weather service bulletins require careful, slow reading, usually at times of duress.
As Woldt explained it, his emergency dispatchers sometimes have had to stop what they were doing, shut out all distractions, and read through the warnings line by line with a highlighter.
“It seems like the (bulletins) come in when my dispatchers were already swamped with other things,” he said. “Sometimes they have had to tell law officers (responding to other incidents) to hang on while they read through it.”
Now, he said, dispatchers receive the bulletins, skip the bulk of the text and go directly to the brief tag lines that summarize the threat. Because the tag lines are easier to read and more explicit, his dispatchers can respond more quickly.
“This is much easier,” he said.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1102, firstname.lastname@example.org