Severe Weather - Watches, Warnings, Advisories.... Eh?

An alert system takes three elements to be successful:
  1. It must be able to be launched those "in the know" to those in or potentially "in the area".  
  2. The system must be heard by those "in the area."  
  3. The message delivered must be understood by those "in the area."
As far as delivery systems, in Colorado, those systems are managed at the County-level or by local first responders such as fire/police departments or local public health agencies.  Alert systems come in many forms:  tornado/civil defense sirens, reverse-911, text/sms/email alerts, and more.  Given the huge variety of topography and weather conditions in Colorado, locally-managed systems make sense because local officials are in the best position to understand the appropriate systems, threats and population-appropriate messages best suited for their area.  Behind this initial tier of alert systems is the backbone sources of info that feed local emergency responders and the public, such as those managed by the National Weather Service, who are packed with subject-matter experts in Colorado weather analysis and identification.

Being heard "in the area" varies by the system.  If you are within audible range of a tornado/civil defense siren, you will likely hear it being periodically tested or during an activation.  If you have a landline telephone, you may be familiar with reverse-911 systems that call line-based telephones and provide incident information and safety messages.  If you have registered with local emergency managers/first responders that maintain txt/sms/email alert systems, you will receive alerts on your mobile phone or internet-tied device.  In addition to these official source deliveries is a robust partnership with local media sources across Colorado who work to gather and provide information during emergencies.  Be sure to check with your local emergency manager to understand what systems/information sources are available and how to register to ensure you receive alerts.

Of course, a message delivered is only as effective as the ability for that message to be understood.  Sirens have tones/instructions with which listeners must be either educated or familiar.  Reverse-911 calls will provide information regarding a specific threat and action instructions on how to protect yourself and/or your property.  Text/sms/email systems will also provide information regarding the threats and what actions or where to go for further information.  Generally speaking, these will all serve as spokes around a "hub" where all information regarding an incident is maintained either via a public information telephone line or, increasingly, on websites that are specific to emergencies/incidents and which are mobile-friendly.   All of these systems require a symbiotic relationship between the emergency services issuer and the receiver to understand what systems are available and to remain attune to information sources and monitor conditions to ensure safety.  There is no single, perfect alert system.  Adequate awareness requires a mix of common sense and connection with the mosaic of information sources available. 

In terms of Severe Weather, the Watch, Warning and Advisory terminology has been in use for some time and continues to be relevant and adapt, even as technology evolves.  Why?  Because it is uncomplicated and simple, which helps it transcend systems and be used as a common message regardless of the alert system employed.  It is built upon a three-tiered level of Advisory, Watch and Warning and is used to describe increasing conditions/awareness needs for Colorado hazards such as tornadoes, severe storms, heat, frost, wind, fog, freezing rain, winter storms, floods, and other weather conditions.

In Colorado, National Weather Service Advisories, Watches and Warnings are posted online, are available through the NWS Weather Radio Network or via local emergency management/first responder alert systems.  Generally speaking, the breakdown - listed in order of increasing severity - is as follows:

Advisory - An Advisory is a general notice that any one or a combination of weather elements exist that may produce a severe weather condition.  It is a projection that tends to be issued well in advance when forecasters are looking at data coming in that suggest or that raise the possibility that conditions related to severe weather or adverse conditions may develop.  Think of the Advisory as the first "heads up" and a prompt to start paying attention.

Watch - A Watch means that conditions have developed that are likely, favorable or expected but not occurring or imminent.  Where an Advisory was a general indication that conditions may be forming to produce a condition or severe weather, a Watch suggests that the data coming into forecasters indicates that severe weather conditions (i.e., winter storm, tornado, severe thunderstorm, etc) are likely to develop.  Watches are targeted towards specific geographic areas and serve as a notice to people in those areas that bad weather conditions are probably headed their way.  Watches are a "get ready" order.  Based on the type of condition, these are prompts for potentially affected persons to think about where their emergency kits are, what their home/family/business emergency communications plan is, etc.  See READYColorado's site for more info on emergency preparedness kits, communications plans and more preparedness aides.

Warning - A Warning means that conditions have developed and severe weather is occurring or imminent.  A Warning is not a "heads up" notice it is a "take action" notice. If you are in the area of a Warning, a severe weather condition is currently affecting you or is about to affect you.  In an event such as a tornado, this is the time to head to your home's safe place, to get your emergency kit, or take other response actions according to the hazard.

For Colorado-specific emergency management telephone numbers, websites, contact emails and alert registration systems, we have put together a "Sources" page on our COEmergency site to help guide you to local authorities.  Be Informed and Be Safe!