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The Importance of Storm Spotting

Author: Mike Smith

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

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By Mike Smith, CEO, WeatherData Services, Inc

…From Action News Central… A tornado warning is in effect until 6pm for…

Storm spotter Katherine Bay safely monitoring a severe storm using a GPS-enabled cell phone application to display radar and keep her out of danger.How many times do we see these words across the United States each year? Often enough that most people take them for granted.

But, there was a time not so long ago when there were no warnings of tornadoes or hurricanes. As a result of a decision made by the Weather Bureau in 1886, the word “tornado” was banned from its vocabulary. The head of the Weather Bureau, Willis Moore, had a fear of panicking people with incorrect tornado and hurricane forecasts. His solution? Don’t forecast any!

So, when a violent tornado moved from southeast Missouri into southern Indiana in 1925, 698 people died. There were no warnings nor any system for creating them. As author Marlene Bradford put it, “tornado forecasting and warnings [were] as nonexistent in 1940 as…in 1870.” Large numbers of deaths from tornadoes occurred into the 1950’s.


Woodward, OK Tornado
Waco, TX
Flint, MI
Worcester, MA
Udall, KS-Blackwell, OK


In my book, Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather, I tell the fascinating story of how scientists, sometimes in the face of official opposition, created the modern warning system that has saved many thousands of lives in tornadoes, hurricanes and by the prevention of airline crashes.

The story of how the tornado warning system began is pertinent to today’s dispatchers, law enforcement, and emergency management.

The year after the Woodward Tornado, the U.S. Air Force at Tinker, AFB, Oklahoma began a tornado forecasting and warning program. Just five days after the program began, it successfully forecast a tornado that struck the base. Once word of the success at Tinker spread, the NBC television station in Oklahoma City, WKY TV, began issuing tornado warnings. Those spread to the other TV stations in the market. But, the rest of the nation was without tornado protection.

New technology such as this AccuWeather GPS iPhone included applications to track storm density and direction, such as that menacing storm approaching in the distance.The Weather Bureau began a tornado forecasting program in 1953. That program only provided limited advice to its field offices and wasn’t even in operation 24 hours a day. The high death tolls continued. In 1955, twenty died in Blackwell, OK on May 25 and, less than two hours later, 82 died around Udall, Kansas.

In 1957, things came to a head as a tornado approached south Kansas City. A Weather Bureau meteorologist named Joe Audsley, along with his coworker, Bob Babb, issued what would now be considered a tornado warning as a major tornado approached a heavily-populated area. The death toll, 44, lower than would have been expected given the thousands of people affected, was the result of local television and radio stations’ broadcast of Audsley’s warning.

Over the next few years, the ban on issuing tornado warnings crumbled and what is now called the National Weather Service started issuing them nationwide. The tornado warning program has been amazingly successful, cutting the death rate by more than 90%.

But even before there was a formal tornado warning program, there were tornado spotters. According to a paper by Charles Doswell, Alan Moller, and Harold Brooks spotter networks were organized in World War II to help protect military installations and, from there, to protect cities and towns. There was some success in warning White Dear, Texas in 1951 via spotters. This came four years after the town was damaged in the early stages of the Woodward Tornado.

From its earliest days, law enforcement, fire departments, and emergency management have been involved in the all-important “ground truth” aspect of tornado warnings. While technology, such as Doppler radar, has made critical advances in allowing us to issue tornado warnings, there are still times when well-trained eyes make all the difference.

Storm spotting is dangerous work and, too often, the public and elected officials do not recognize the critical role spotters play in the warning process. There are two vital elements for safe, effective spotting: Training and location-specific storm data when a spotter is in the field. The National Weather Service provides free training. Call your local NWS office and ask for the warning coordination meteorologist. Once trained, spotters should carry with them mobile technology that will allow them to continuously relate their location to the location and movement of dangerous weather systems.

Author and storm spotter Mike Smith, camera at the ready, monitors storm activity.Dispatchers also play an important role in the warning process. The National Weather Service often advises citizens to call local emergency services and “ask them to relay your report to the National Weather Service.” While most handle this function well, I have personally experienced situations when the dispatcher said they had no way of getting in touch with the NWS. I recommend that readers take a moment to double check their communications link to the NWS (which is often an unlisted phone number to the NWS storm warning desk) before any future critical situation develops. Any report of dangerous weather (i.e., tornado, damaging winds, hail larger than 1”, flash floods, blizzard conditions, ice storms, etc.) should be relayed to the weather service. This service is more valuable than ever since these reports are now turned around in near-real time and displayed on television and emergency management weather systems such as WeatherData’s SelectWarn® storm display. Having confirmation that a major storm is in progress helps meteorologists make subsequently better warning decisions as a storm unfolds and helps convince the public the danger is real.

The role played by storm spotters and storm chasers in the warning process is a big part of the reason for the amazing success of the tornado warning system. We meteorologists appreciate the role you play in keeping the public safe.

Mike Smith is CEO of WeatherData Services, Inc., an AccuWeather Company. In addition to being author of “Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather,” he is a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society and a board-certified consulting meteorologist. Mike’s latest book, Warnings — The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather, was published this year by Greenleaf Book Group, and it tells the behind-the-scenes story of how weather science has become more effective at saving lives than cardiology, cancer research and traffic safety — at tiny fraction of the cost to society. For more information, see:

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