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Tornadoes, False Alarms and Public Complacency: What You Need to Know

by Lisa Eifert on March 14th, 2016

We often lament the problem of limited lead times for tornado warnings, but what about watches and warnings which never come to be? While it’s easy to discount a false alarm as for the greater good, can multiple false alarms eventually trigger a “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” effect? Let’s take a closer look at the issue of tornado forecasting false alarms, along with whether they might be a greater threat to public safety than most people realize.

HOW COMMON ARE FALSE ALARMS?

A whopping 75 percent of tornado warnings are false alarms, according to research from the American Meteorological Society published in the journal, Weather and Forecasting. Not only that, but some regions may see multiple tornado warnings at one without a single tornado ever actually touching down.

THE TROUBLE WITH FALSE ALARMS

While one mode of thinking holds with the old adage, “Better safe than sorry,” another school of thought proposes that too many false warnings may yield a less innocuous outcome: dangerous public complacency.

Does this potentially translate to more injuries and deaths? According to a study published in Weather, Climate and Society, “tornadoes that occur in an area with a higher false-alarm ratio kill and injure more people, everything else being constant.” Why? Because when people live through enough warnings in situations where tornadoes never actually materialize, they start to ignore them.

Still not convinced? Following Alabama’s April 2011 “Super Outbreak,” which resulted in 324 tornado-related deaths as well as 24 additional fatalities caused by extreme weather, renowned broadcast journalist James Spann concluded, “I firmly believe apathy and complacency due to a high false alarm ratio over the years led to inaction in many cases that could have cost lives.”

MORE ACCURACY, FEWER FALSE ALARMS?

As no one knows better than storm chasers—including Tim Samaras, his son Paul and their partner Carl Young, all three of whom died in 2013 when an Oklahoma twister took an unexpected and deadly turn—tornadoes are unpredictable by nature. This is just one reason why the Sirens Project, which is developing drones to better understand tornado dynamics, offers hope for both yielding more accurate forecasting and saving lives.

BEYOND FORCASTING

Ultimately, while we can’t know for certain what the weather holds—particularly when it comes to erratic tornados—we can and do know that better information and heightened awareness make a difference in ensuring that people are prepared for whatever extreme weather heads their way. Armed with the knowledge that prompt, accurate and reliable communications are an essential part of protecting public safety, can you say that your organization is doing everything it can to make sure emergency messages are delivered in the most effective, expedient way? One Call Now’s emergency notification system offers a lifesaving solution.

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