Private companies also offer telephone-driven warning systems. For example, TechRadium’s Immediate Response Information System makes automated calls when the weather service issues alerts.
In Royce City, Texas, officials are using TechRadium’s technology instead of warning sirens, which the city’s fire chief and emergency management coordinator, Richard Bell, said were more expensive and only worked for people who are outdoors.
The weather service is experimenting with social media, as well, to reach people who don’t watch weather on TV or own weather radios. In Oklahoma — where the weather service has 32,000 Facebook friends and the Twitter handle @nwsnorman has 13,500 followers — a test in March found that a Facebook message reached 200,000 people in just a few minutes.
Even those hyper-personalized alerts will not mean the end of long-time staples of weather warnings like radios and sirens. In part, that’s because cell phone networks can be overwhelmed by traffic or knocked offline in a crisis, said Kim Klockow, a Ph.D. student in geography at the University of Oklahoma who is researching how people respond to tornado warnings.
Klockow’s work after the 2011 tornadoes in Alabama and Joplin, Mo., confirmed earlier studies showing that people want multiple sources of information about storms. More than half of those she interviewed first learned of those tornadoes from sirens then checked other sources such as television news or their friends.
Nor has technology created major changes in the way storms are forecast, according to scientists, at least since the advent of Doppler radar and integrated models for hurricane forecasting. But a great deal of work has gone into making those models better.
The weather service is rolling out changes to Doppler radar called dual-polarization, which distinguishes between hail and rain. It’s also testing phase array radar, used by the U.S. Navy, to see if it improves tornado forecasting.