Anticipating Weather Dangers

Advanced technology helps today's emergency responders keep their communities safe.

Weather tools available to emergency responders have improved considerably in recent years. As important as National Weather Service (NWS) watches and warnings are, they’re just the starting point. You can now access everything from detection of likely tornadoes to real-time lightning and frost and icing forecasts. Reliability and ease of use have improved. Emergency management organizations are increasingly adopting these weather tools to better prepare, respond, and recover.

Earlier, More Precise Warnings
Some weather Web sites and services now provide “storm corridors”—radar-based indications of a likely tornado, severe thunderstorm, or hail. Additional information, such as the storms’ likely path, type, and overall direction indicators, helps to provide an earlier alert.

As visual indications on a map, they’re easy to interpret and far better than a non-meteorologist trying to look at radar and guess whether a tornado is on the way. Storm corridors can be a valuable addition, going beyond NWS warnings to help emergency responders make a faster decision to sound sirens.

In fall 2007, NWS completed enhancements to its warning bulletin system whereby more precise warning areas are provided other than just county boundaries alone. This system has been alternatively referred to as storm-based warnings, community-based warnings, or areas of maximum impact. These more precise warnings give a localized indication of where the greatest danger is for tornados, severe thunderstorms, and floods. They can help emergency responders to better gauge danger and reduce “false alarms.” Having these and traditional, county-based warnings is a must for any public safety organization.

Real-Time Lightning Risk
Knowing when a storm also has lightning risk has been a guessing game, until now. The latest weather services detect actual lightning in real time (within a minute) and can even alert managers via their phones and map individual strikes that are happening within a specified coverage area. Waiting to see lighting or hear thunder, and then respond, is too late to properly avoid the danger.

NWS recommends that the public get to a safe place (in grounded buildings or in a car/bus) when lightning is within six miles. By using lightning detection, emergency responders know what’s to be expected and can take proper safety action, without false alarms. There’s time to sound alarms, clear swimming pools, get golfers off the municipal course, and send park and recreation participants to their cars, as well as providing sufficient evacuation notice during civic events.

Be forewarned that any lightning detection maps you’ll see on free Internet sites are delayed 30 to 60 minutes and should never be used to make safety or evacuation decisions. Like many of the new weather tools described here, real-time lightning is available only from subscription services but is remarkably cost effective. Real-time lightning can also be useful for gauging fire risk, especially in drought or fire-prone areas.

Snow and Ice: The Number One Killer
First responders, even those in the snow and ice belts of the United States, sometimes do not consider winter weather in the same category as tornados, floods, hurricanes, and other weather risks. But recent Federal Highway Administration data show that annually there are more than 10 times as many weather-related road fatalities as off-road weather fatalities (7,400 annually versus 650 annually). Some of these weather-related traffic deaths are due to rain and fog, and many are winter related. Winter-related fatalities are the ones that may be the most preventable.

Advanced weather technology now can anticipate frost on overpasses or icing on roads through the use of pavement forecasts, enabling proactive salting and prevention. Here’s where teaming up with the public works/city or county department of transport is key. Those responsible for winter road maintenance can purchase pavement forecasts and take appropriate preventive action while coordinating with public safety officials. Emergency responders also can obtain current pavement temperatures (as opposed to the forecasts just described) to help gauge the risk of roads icing up because of sleet or in overnight re-freeze situations. (It is pavement temperatures, not air temperatures, that matter!)

Today’s emergency responders don’t have to wait for accidents to happen and then respond. It’s now possible to use accurate and reliable weather information to do a better job scheduling staff for impending weather, while at the same time reducing costs and increasing safety.

More Accurate, Timely Forecasts
Despite jokes about weather forecasts, the reality is that the science behind weather forecasting has improved markedly in the past decade. Weather vendors should be able to provide independent, third-party verification of their fore cast accuracy. Another important innovation is hourly updates of forecasts, as even the best forecasts benefit from timely adjustment. Asking your weather services provider about these is the only real way to know.

A recent example of improved forecast accuracy was the February 2008 tornados that ripped through the Southeast, killing 60 people. Unfortunately, some communities relying on traditional weather sources were ill prepared. The weather forecasts from at least one major vendor predicted extensive tornados and widespread, damaging wind gusts of 60-75 mph in the impacted areas roughly 20 hours before the storms hit. Early warning meant local emergency responders had time to prepare, mobilize, and save lives.

Emergency responders can obtain mid-storm and post-storm radar-based rainfall estimates to anticipate flooding. The estimates can be highly localized so emergency responders can visualize exactly where the most rain occurred in local watersheds. Such tools, along with better hourly forecasts, can prove quite helpful in flood preparation and safety response.

Hazardous Materials
Hazardous material incidents are another area of emergency response that has a major weather component. Whether the cause is a warehouse fire, train derailment, tractor/ trailer accident, or other hazmat incident, it’s important to know how weather will affect the atmospheric plume from such chemical releases.

For emergency response purposes, the ideal approach is to have both a quick and a comprehensive plume model—that is, predictions of how wind speed, wind direction, temperature, and other factors will affect chemical drift. A quick plume model will help emergency responders safely approach the incident and begin community evacuation. Then, a more complete plume modeling that takes into account the chemical involved, volume of chemical, localized wind speed/direction, and so on—which takes more time—is desirable for both the safety of emergency personnel and the safety of the community. Quick plume modeling doesn’t replace a full-blown plume model, but it helps to augment it for faster and safer response.

Convenience and Mobility
Convenience and accessibility are important practical considerations. Modern Web displays use a “layered” approach, where emergency responders can customize maps and see only the localized weather they are interested in, such as radar, watches, and warnings, at the same time.

Accessibility includes mobile access. While emergency responders may have a 911 center or other staff members who monitor weather 24/7, some do not. In these situations, automated alerts to the cell phones of key police, fire, or other EMS staff are critical. Seeing local radar, lightning, and other weather events on their phones becomes highly valuable.

Emergency responders have seen tremendous improvement in the weather tools and technology available. The latest, most up-to date weather technology can help to improve community safety while helping emergency responders react to threatening emergency situations and weather hazards. Be sure to check out what’s now available.

This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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