On March 5, 2014, the National Weather Service office in Norman, OK conducted a tornado drill via Facebook to get a view of social behavior patterns in using social media to disseminate potentially life-saving warnings. While the details of the warning process and preparation are beyond the scope of this essay, a quick examination of the results reveals little more than very sobering results.
Here’s a slide of the results as compiled by the NWS Norman, OK. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll round off population total numbers and let most of the results speak for themselves.
The warning for the drill was issued at 5:30 PM Central Time. Within 15 minutes, only 46,000 people had been notified of the warning. Many only became aware of the warning because it had been “liked” or “shared.” But that 15 minutes is critical. In a best case scenario, the lead-time in a tornado warning averages to 12 minutes. That means if you are in a tornado warned area, you may have (at most) twelve minutes to take shelter. It also could mean that, depending on your proximity to the tornado, you’ve less than one minute to get to shelter and save your life. In a metropolitan area of well over one million people, 46,000 & change is pitifully small. Within 30 minutes, only 131,000 had been notified via Facebook. Using the Moore, OK tornado of May 20, 2014 as an example, by the time 30 minutes had passed, the tornado has done it’s damage and was long gone. Looking further down the timeline of the drill and jumping forward to the highest population total of over 797,000, it took a full 13 hours for the warning to be shared on Facebook.
The rest of the slide from the Norman NWS doesn’t mince words and is self-explanatory. Facebook is a horrible platform to use when it comes to severe storm warnings where seconds count. I’ll take the personal liberty and add to that other social media outlets such as Google+, Tumblr, WordPress, Instagram, Vine, et al. Even text messaging is fraught with hazards such as misinformation spread under duress and cell tower reception which can be disrupted during violent thunderstorms. Presented with this dilemma, what is the best solution? A NOAA weather radio.
When a warning is issued and goes out over NOAA weather radio, you’re getting potentially life saving information at the same time as local emergency management, broadcast meteorologists on television, radio stations, and the thousands of “media-rologists” that bottleneck timelines all over social media. If you are in an area that is under a tornado/severe thunderstorm/flash flood warning, you do not have the luxury of confirming the warning via social media. You need to take immediate action and, if possible, take with you a portable device (NOAA weather radio, hand-held AM/FM radio, smart phone, tablet, etc.) where you can get updated information. As for weather buffs and/or storm chasers who share warning information, please take their posts with a grain of salt. I can relate to their excitement, but they are all too often in pursuit of increasing the number of followers or likes they can accumulate on their social media accounts. Some may be hundreds of miles away from you, have no idea of the local conditions you’re dealing with, post on Twitter or Facebook IN ALL UPPER CASE grandly pronouncing as if they are the only source for warning information. Never, under any circumstances, should any of these accounts be taken seriously. The only accounts on Twitter that you need to follow for timely weather information is your local National Weather Service office, the Storm Prediction Center, and the local broadcast meteorologists of your choice. After 5 years on Twitter, I’ve seen a lot of accounts that wildly proclaim to “save lives” come and go. None of them do that. Unfortunately, the competition for popularity in social media among weather hobbyists and storm chasers is at an all time high and none of the jostling for followers, attention, and the “big man on campus” feather in their hat will do you, the general public, any good. I learned very early in my time on Twitter that when the warnings start, I should shut up. There is information that I do share, but it’s often issued by the Storm Prediction Center hours or even days before the expected severe weather event. Because I don’t think the public is as scientifically illiterate as many people do, I enjoy sharing Mesoscale Discussions which are detailed forecast products issued by the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, OK. While rather technical, these can give you an “insiders” view on the forecaster’s thoughts concerning severe weather potential. When possible, I will post information about a Severe Thunderstorm or Tornado Watch for parts of Oklahoma and neighboring states since I have a high percentage of followers in this (my home state) region. But, you will get the watch information no faster than any other account or I will by having your NOAA weather radio handy.
In summary, as you can see from the results of the Facebook tornado drill, the use of social media (and specifically Facebook) is a poor choice. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of using NOAA weather radios for timely information that could save your life. Like smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, they are a life-saving tool that should be in every home, place of work, school, recreation area, etc. And please be very discerning, discreet, and selective when it comes to following storm chasers and/or weather hobbyists in the social media format. None of them, including yours truly, should be considered as a source of official weather information.
Stay safe, good luck…and get that NOAA weather radio in your hot little hands ASAP!