New Weather Alerting Technologies Will Save Lives

Paul Douglas
6 min readMay 12, 2020

I grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania — Amish country. My late mother was fond of noisily clanging pots and pans together to get us to come inside for dinner — or warn of an impending storm. Low-tech, yes, but it worked. Today we have a myriad of ways to get severe weather notifications. More than ever, there is no reason to miss a critical warning.

Graphic credit: Des Moines National Weather Service.

Emergency managers point out the need for “multiple safety nets”. The more sources of severe weather information, the greater the odds you will get word in time to take evasive action. Not becoming dependent on any one channel of information is key. The more sources the better.

Another critical factor: continuity and consistency of severe storm messaging. When consumers receive conflicting information about county-specific warnings, they are more likely to sit on their hands and do nothing. Confusion breeds paralysis. Meteorologists can interpret data and models to create their own forecast, but when the weather turns extreme, it is mission-critical that we speak with one voice — deferring to warnings issued by local National Weather Service offices. “My Doppler is bigger than yours!” is a dangerously slippery slope. When we start issuing our own warnings the result is weather-anarchy, and a hopelessly confused public.

Emergency sirens were designed for outdoor use only — they were never designed to be heard indoors, and you should not rely on them for weather warnings. Sirens can blow for fires, chemical spills and nuclear accidents — and different counties around the USA have different criteria for activation. They are part of a healthy diet of severe weather sources, but experts warn against becoming overly dependent on the wail of a siren you may not hear when the Big One is approaching.

Map credit: Data Foundry

America experiences more extreme weather than any nation on Earth. We are a veritable playground for storms of all shapes and sizes, many of them potentially lethal. In this case geography is destiny. Unlike the Alps in Europe, which are situated roughly east-west and act as a natural roadblock, a barrier for hot air approaching from sub-Saharan Africa — our Rocky Mountains run north-south, resulting in an unimpeded flow of northern chill and southern warmth. Throw in a high-octane moisture flow from the Gulf of Mexico and conditions become overly ripe for a treadmill of energized storms capable of tornadoes, damaging winds, hail and flooding rains.

Any thunderstorm is potentially dangerous, due to lightning concerns. A building or vehicle offers considerable protection. A “Watch” is issued by NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center when life-threatening weather conditions are possible, usually 3–8 hours before an outbreak. A “Watch” means watch out, be prepared, stay weather-aware a ramp up your sources of severe weather information. If a tornado, damaging hailstorm or flood is observed by trained spotters or Doppler radar a “Warning” is issued. If a major tornado or flash flood is impacting a more heavily populated area, an “Emergency” may be issued by local National Weather Service offices.

I am a creature of mass media: television, radio, print and online, and these remain valuable sources of severe weather alerting information. Traditional media can provide what your favorite weather app cannot: perspective, context and analysis. Meteorologists add value in real time and help to highlight time-sensitive information that can help to secure property, even save your life. The truth: flesh and blood meteorologists still add value you won’t get from automated alerts.

Managing a continuous firehose of information and updates is daunting, for everyone. Social media gossip and speculation runs rampant before a major storm outbreak. Combine that with shorter attention spans, and a spray of notifications, headlines and advertisements, and it can be difficult separating signal from the noise. That is where new technologies come in, offering the rough equivalent of a digital tap on the shoulder. Pay attention. This is important.

National Weather Service Alerts on your smartphone are a focused, effective way to get life-saving information when you are on the go. If Emergency Alerts are turned on in your phone’s settings, you receive geolocated NOAA custom weather alerts of imminent tornadoes, flash floods, hurricanes, even tsunamis. The only caveat: these emergency alerts do not give you much advance notice. They should part of a larger diet of emergency weather alerts.

New smart home technology is making it easier for consumers to receive critical weather information in non-traditional ways. Smart lighting and speakers can now be programmed to flash certain colors (helpful for the deaf community) and interrupt music streams for geolocated severe storm warnings. Current observations, forecasts and even weather threats can be displayed on a new generation of smart thermostats and integrated within connected smart window and skylight software. They will not only alert you of an approaching tornado, but adjust circulation, ventilation, and window position to keep rain or snow out and indoor air quality within safe thresholds when pollution is a factor.

A company called Body Guardz integrates AerisWeather API data including observations, forecasts, and alerts to notify 5-in-1 Portable Emergency Hub owners of a wide range of emergencies, including nearby fires, law enforcement warnings, tornadoes and flash floods. Think of it as a very intelligent night light — one that may just save your life in a pinch.

Smart-watering is now a reality. In the western U.S. chronic water shortages are pervasive. Why waste water when a storm is on the way? Using weather data streams, machine learning and predictive scheduling/alerting, smart home irrigation devices ration precious groundwater, providing a “just in time” stream of H2O, with far less waste and lower cost.

A new wave of tech companies focused on smart home automation has launched creative services alerting consumers of potential weather hazards on the devices they use all the time including smart thermostats, mirrors, and refrigerators. The goal remains the same: to be in the right place at the right time with the right information, time-critical alerting that keeps your family safe when skies turn ugly. Using smartphone apps, homeowners can be alerted, anywhere- anytime, when their homes sense a threat, from Mother Nature or any other source.

We have come a long way from shouting, yelling and clanking pots and pans together to warn of impending trouble! I can’t wait to see what comes next.



Paul Douglas

Paul Douglas is a nationally-respected meteorologist, with 40 years of broadcast television and radio experience.