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James WX Blog: Watch vs. Warning explained at last

Oh the confusion. Ever since we started telling people about the forecast, there has been a conversation on how to do it better. How do we communicate the risks to people in a way that will inspire action that will ultimately help save lives and property? While this is an area that continues to evolve, it evolves pretty slowly and can be frustrating for all those involved. Those receiving the forecasts and those giving the forecasts.

Before we continue, you can read all the NWS Watch/Warning/Advisories here — otherwise, let’s get down to the nitty gritty.

We’ll try to keep it simple here and focus on severe weather. There is a MASSIVE difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning. A tornado watch means there are ingredients in place for a tornado to potentially occur and it will be issued often for a longer time period, like 12 hours in advance for a potential event. You prepare by becoming weather aware, knowing where your family is, and making sure you have a plan if a tornado is heading your way (know what room to go to, have a weather radio, etc.)

A tornado warning means there is a storm currently showing significant rotation on radar and either has a chance of producing a tornado or there is a tornado on the ground. This requires immediate action if you are in that warned area. These are issued on average 10-15 minutes in advance. 

Here’s where the drama begins. Many people think watches mean “WATCH OUT!” and that there is some immediacy to it, creating confusion. Others think warnings mean “TAKE WARNING” as in something might be coming, but it’s not that far in advance. Ready to pull your hair out? Start issuing for advisories. Yeah. It’s a lot even for us meteorologists trying to explain it to the public. There are hundreds of watches, warnings, and advisories for threats from fog to snow to fire.

For the most part these work. Issued by the NWS that we as media work closely with, we’re able to get the message out in a proper and understanding way that puts you in a position to succeed. But those few occasions where they do get mixed up always brings up this conversation. Changes in government are slow and take time. Changes to this take time and we need to continue to learn how our forecasts are digested in order to best serve the public.

A few other tidbits here. “Tornado emergency” is starting to be used a bit more to express the extreme nature of certain storms. In weather and in life it is human nature to get a second opinion. Someone told you a restaurant is good but you check the reviews online anyway. You bought your car from a dealer that told you the price was the same as the blue book offer, but you looked to see online anyway. You got a tornado warning on your phone, but turned on the TV to see if there was a meteorologist telling you there was a tornado warning. Or worse, you go outside and look west to see if there’s a massive storm barreling down on your house. We as meteorologists want to eliminate that, but it’s easier said than done. 

The FAR is something meteorologists and NWS offices often battle. It’s the False Alarm Rate. When a tornado is issued and none occurs. Too many and you lose the faith of the public when they stop believing you. If the number is too low you may be missing out on warning people of damaging storms. GAHH! Many NWS offices that keep track of this want to be somewhere in the 5%-20% range.

NWS offices all across the country have been working on a Hazard simplification program to help do exactly that. Simplify them. Locally there was a big change with winter storms. You can find a story I did on this two years ago.

Did you ever wonder why your phone goes off because of a flash flood, and you don’t get any other notifications about weather? It’s because of this.

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