2021 Severe Weather Awareness: Week 1 - Day 2: Hearing the Warning & Finding Yourself on a Map
Now that you understand the difference between a watch and a warning, and you understand the concept of polygon warnings, you have to be able to reliably receive watches and warnings when they are issued. The key here is redundancy and backups. Anything can fail. Weather radio transmitters can be taken offline, power outages and battery backup failures can take out sirens, cell phone outages can take out your signal so that you aren't able to receive the alert on your phone. Any number of things can happen that can make a normally reliable way of hearing a tornado warning fail to notify you when you are in danger. Having multiple reliable ways of receiving watches and warnings is crucial. The baseline recommendation is two separate methods, but we recommend having three.
The baseline method for everyone in the Tennessee Valley (and the United States) is a NOAA Weather Radio. These radios do work on the legacy county system instead of by polygons; so, they will sound if any portion of your county is included. However, this is what will sound a loud alert in your home that would be able to wake you up in the middle of the night. We personally recommend the Midland WR-120 model, but there are other good brands and models out there. The important part is that you make sure the weather radio has S.A.M.E. technology included. S.A.M.E. stands for Specific Area Message Encoding. This allows you to have your weather radio programmed for only the county or counties you want to be alerted for. Make sure your weather radio is correctly programmed and can receive a broadcast signal and that your weather radio has fresh backup batteries installed. We recommend changing those batteries every six months, at the same time you change the batteries in your smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors. Every home, every business, every school, every house of worship needs a NOAA Weather Radio and a person to monitor it for alerts on stormy days. Coming up this week, we will be taking the time to detail how to program your weather radio, select the correct broadcast transmission channel, and everything else you need to know.
In addition to having a NOAA Weather radio, a great way of being able to receive watches and warnings is a reliable smartphone app. We recommend the FREE Tennessee Valley Weather App, but we also know there are other good apps out there too, such as the WeatherRadio by WDT app, MyWarn, etc. Those other apps actually cost a few dollars, but they work well for alerting you. Our app is completely 100% FREE and always will be. The apps put forth by local media in the area are good as well, and you certainly can't go wrong with them. Our app, however, has OUR team-produced forecast within it, as well as a link to our 24/7 all LOCAL digital weather channel, as well as custom push notifications sent out from our team.
All of these smartphone apps work to alert you via the polygon warning system. Our app, for instance, either uses your current GPS coordinates or the coordinates of a location that you manually pick. It takes those coordinates and compares them to a warning polygon. If that location is within the polygon, you get an alert. If that location is not within the polygon, that means that location is not in danger, and you do not get alerted. It is CRITICAL that you understand that concept. If the warning polygon covers portions of Lawrence County, TN but it does not include Ethridge (for example), then the app will not alert you if you live in Ethridge. That is completely by design of not only the app, but also the actual warnings themselves. That is how the warning system is supposed to work! In addition to alert notifications for any type of watch, warning, or advisory you have the option of choosing to be alerted for, our app sends alerts for lightning in the area, storms or rain approaching, strong storms that may be close to severe limits but don't have a warning, and a "Twisting Storm Alert" for storms that show turbulence or suspicious wind shear, but aren't quite yet organized enough for a tornado warning.
Also working on the polygon system instead of by whole counties are the Wireless Emergency Alerts that are prebuilt into most mobile devices sold over the last several years. This is the same system that sends you the Amber Alert notifications. When a warning is issued, the WEA system compares the coordinates of that warning polygon to the location of the nearest cell phone transmission tower. If that tower is within the polygon, your phone then gets an alert that there is a warning within your area. That does occasionally mean that you can receive an alert when you are just outside of the warning polygon or that you can miss an alert if you are near the edge of the polygon but within it but your nearest cell tower is outside of the polygon. It's not a perfect system, but it works most of the time. That flaw, however, is why we ask you to NOT depend on just the WEA system to hear a tornado warning. In the graphic, you see the types of warnings that are included. Later this spring, higher-end severe thunderstorm warnings will be added (wind gusts of 80+ mph or 2.75+ inch diameter hail). Severe thunderstorm warnings are not currently included in the WEA system.
In addition to a NOAA Weather Radio, a good smartphone app, and Wireless Emergency Alerts, local television, local radio, and right here with us at the Tennessee Valley Weather Channel are all great ways of hearing severe weather watches and warnings. We will ALWAYS be here to provide coverage and information as severe weather threatens our viewing area!
Now, let's talk about these things for a moment. There is a massive, dangerous misunderstanding of the importance of these when it comes to hearing a tornado warning. Let me be clear up front. We believe that outdoor warning sirens serve a legitimate purpose. We believe they can help a limited and specific group of people. However, they are NOT designed to alert you if you are inside a building or your home. Notice the very first word in their name is "outdoor". They are designed specifically and SOLELY to alert people OUTDOORS that there is a danger and they need to seek additional information. An outdoor warning siren is NOT DESIGNED to alert you in your home in the middle of the night that a tornado is coming. STOP THINKING THIS!!! Way too many people die each year because of this very line of thinking! You may hear a siren in your home on a calm day, but you will NEVER be awakened by a siren at 3:00 in the morning when a raging storm is approaching. And even if you hypothetically could, there's a regional chance the storm could cut power to the siren before it's ever able to alert you. Sirens serve a purpose, but STOP RELYING ON THEM AS YOUR ONLY WAY OF HEARING A WARNING and STOP RELYING ON THEM TO HEAR A WARNING WHEN YOU ARE INSIDE OR ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU ARE ASLEEP AT NIGHT.
The next important step in receiving the warning is that you HAVE TO be able to find your location on a weather map. It is your personal responsibility as a person that lives in a tornado prone area to be able to find your county and your location on a weather map without the county being labeled. Meteorologists communicate weather information with maps. There's no other good way to communicate the information. James Spann, chief meteorologist of ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Alabama talks above about the importance of knowing your county and being able to find your location on a map. Below, you will find a map of the counties in our viewing area as well as overall county maps of Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi.