Boost Your Weather Game: Getting Started with the National Weather Service
Emergency managers deal with the weather in many different settings. First of all, many of our hazards and threats are weather-related. We spend a lot of time identifying what weather hazards are possible in our jurisdictions and watching for when weather systems may be approaching our area. Many emergency operations center (EOC) activations are weather-related. Others may be related indirectly to weather, such as public safety activation support for large public outdoor events.
No matter where you are located or what weather threats you face, it is SO IMPORTANT to have a relationship with your local National Weather Service (NWS) office. NWS is a government agency made up of many professional weather scientists who are tasked with a mission to save lives and protect property around the United States. They operate 24/7 to create and disseminate official forecast information. NWS provides a number of weather-related services, but one of the most important duties they cover is the creation of weather watches, warnings, and advisories! They are the only organization given that duty in the country. Private companies and media sources relay the watch, warning, and advisory products to the rest of the public. NWS also has a newly created mission to support public safety operations more closely, which is definitely to our benefit as emergency managers!
Are you already best buddies with your local NWS office? Do you know any meteorologist’s by name yet? Have you ever took a tour of their office, or invited them for a tour of your EOC? Below are some steps on how to start establishing a relationship with your local office. Just like many relationships, this one will be extremely beneficial for future weather events and activations.
STEP 1: Know Your Local NWS Office
While NWS is one federal agency, it is broken down into many smaller local offices! Did you know that there are 122 local weather forecasting offices (WFOs) spread across the US? Each office has a handful of counties that they are responsible for. To receive the best forecast information for your local jurisdiction, you will want to find the office that covers your area.
- Head to www.weather.gov. This is the main NWS page that shows all weather watches, warnings, and advisories posted for the entire country.
- Click the county or regional area that you are from. This can be somewhat challenging since the map is small. Once you click on your county, you will be taken directly to the homepage of your local WFO! The name of your office is located at the top of the page. For instance, I have worked with NWS Lubbock, NWS Austin/San Antonio, and NWS Baltimore/Washington during my EM career.
- If the map option doesn’t work for you, you can also search your city and state in the local forecast search box on the left side of the page. After you hit “Go,” you will be taken to your local 5 day forecast. The local office is shown in the top left above “Current Conditions.” Hold on to that office name!
Once you bookmark your local WFO page, explore their homepage and take a look at all of the products that they offer. Every office is a little different, but they all create forecast graphics, maps, and other helpful visuals to show what weather may be approaching. Many of these tools are helpful for SITREPS, heads-up emails, briefs, or even planning and exercise documents. Have fun exploring!
2. Find the name/contact information of your local NWS Warning Coordination Meteorologist (WCM)
Think of the WCM as a weather liaison to emergency managers. Every NWS office has a designated meteorologist in this position, and the purpose of the WCM is to build relationships with local emergency managers and public safety folks in their forecasting area. Not only are they our key liaison, but they also coordinate many outreach programs and projects for their office as well. They help build contact lists to provide vital weather support to EMs when needed, and can also get you set up with some cool NWS technology to help you make weather-related decisions!
To find the name and contact info of your local WCM, dig around on the NWS local office homepage first. Many offices have a “contact us” tab embedded somewhere on the page. However, all office homepages are a little different. This could make it a challenge to easily find. If all else fails, head to https://www.weather.gov/contact and click the names and phone numbers under the WCM, SOOs, and other key NWS staff. The document gives a list that covers each office. Make sure you record the name, number, and email if you can find it!
3. Contact your WCM!
Relationships are all about shaking hands! (Or not as much physically, at least over the past year). Give your local WCM a call or email and introduce yourself. Explain your position and the jurisdiction that you cover. Be sure to also include any potential weather needs or concerns you may have too. The WCM will be able to direct you to local office resources, such as weekly briefings, email lists, or other ways that you can receive weather support related to emergency operations. Reaching out will help you gain a connection straight to the weather experts!
4. Request some COOL NWS Resources!
When you reach out to your WCM, be sure to request access to the following cool tools:
- NWSChat: NWSChat is a free chatroom tool that allows you to send a chatroom message directly to NWS meteorologists at any time (24/7). EMs can use the tool to ask for forecast clarifications, forecast updates, or even storm support during an emergency activation! Many EMs have used it successfully to make decisions in the middle of weather-related disasters, and it is one of the best (and free!) resources to have to easily connect to your local office. Only NWS, academics, media meteorologists, and public safety personnel are allowed to have accounts. Make sure to also ask for the office phone number. Save it in your work cell — you never know when you may need to call them during an emergency. (Or, call them on scene after a tornado for a damage assessment — me!).
- iNWS: iNWS is a tool that texts and emails weather watches and warnings to public safety professionals. You can create an account and set up notifications for any of the weather products that you would like to be informed about for your jurisdiction. The notifications are extremely useful for weather situational awareness!
- Support Services: The WCM will likely be super excited to tell you what EM support services your local office provides, but if they don’t, be sure to ask to see what they offer. Some offices will be impact briefings, weekly calls, or other services to help you stay in the know regarding severe weather.
- Outreach Programs: NWS and EM shares the same mission to save lives and protect property, which means we also share the mission to conduct public outreach to help promote weather safety in our communities. NWS is a great partner to have at outreach events or to coordinate other events with! Offices have been known to come out to preparedness fairs, presentations, and other outreach events. NWS also has their own outreach programs and missions, which help you if you are unsure exactly what type of information to teach the public involving severe weather!
5. Catch a Tour of Your Local NWS Office
With the pandemic ongoing, you will have to save this item for later but make sure not to skip it entirely! NWS loves to host tours for their EM partners! It gives them a chance to establish a relationship with you, as well as an opportunity to show you all of the science, technology, and work that goes into creating weather forecast information. Every tour I have been on has been such a wonderful opportunity, and it has helped me make friends at every office I have worked with. Be sure to take them up on that when you can!
Also, it never hurts to return the favor! NWS wants to learn more about public safety/emergency management and how they can help support your mission better through weather support. Bring them in and give them a tour of your public safety facilities and EOC! Be sure to tell them what goes into your operations, as well as what your biggest struggles are as a jurisdiction. All of this info will help strengthen a bond and allow for better support on both sides.
6. Inquire about StormReady and SKYWARN
NWS has several programs that aim to create better prepared communities and residents across the country. StormReady is a program that allows jurisdictions to complete a checklist of preparedness items to enhance weather preparedness. Upon completion of the requirements, a jurisdiction is rewarded “StormReady” status for three years before renewal. You even get a cool plaque and a cool sign! This is a great way to boost local OEM/government preparedness, while also boosting a relationship with your local WFO.
SKYWARN is an NWS program that teaches the general public how to spot severe weather and send in weather reports that assist NWS in the warning process. Every year, each NWS holds SKYWARN training in multiple areas of their forecasting area. Storm reports are essential to NWS, and extremely helpful for OEMs as well! You can work with NWS to build a network of local storm spotters who can let you both know when your community is taking on weather damage. You can also request SKYWARN classes for your local city or county, and can sponsor a class. You can also provide your own mini outreach presentation before or after the training.
7. Exercise Support
Keep in mind that NWS can support your exercise program, as well as participate as players! For my tornado and winter weather exercise, NWS Austin was able to create weather graphics that looked just like the ones that they issue in real life — but to match my exercise scenario! They were excited to help with this task, and we also had one of the meteorologists out to assist in putting on the exercise. It was a very cool experience.
Also, don’t forget to invite NWS to your exercises — even if they are only observer roles. As stated above, NWS meteorologists want to learn more about how emergency management works and how they can provide better weather information to support our operations. Every chance that they get to observe or learn about operations helps with this mission. Keep them on your partner list!
With that, you have a giant list of how to start building that crucial relationship with your local NWS office. I will be writing more blogs in the future on specific NWS tools and items touched on today, so keep an eye out! NWS provides free and professional weather support to government and the public. Lean on them to fight against severe weather impacts in your community.