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The Spark

The moment is etched in my mind. It was the morning of January 20, 1998, and Steve Piltz, then the Warning Coordination Meteorologist (WCM) for the Tulsa Weather Forecast Office (WFO), asked, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could certify the severe weather preparedness of emergency managers in our county warning area?" The idea instantly intrigued me. Steve explained emergency managers get certified to handle hazardous materials and suggested we could use that practice as a model. As we talked, the mutual benefits such a program could bring to our office, our agency, and our emergency management partners quickly emerged. For me, it was one of those moments of pure inspiration and excitement that come so rarely in this business. I quickly recognized this could be big - REALLY big!

Steve's idea was borne out of a frustration shared by WCMs and emergency managers across the country: How could communities become accountable for their own severe weather preparedness? Frequently, the NWS is viewed as the problem when a community is caught by a "surprise" severe weather event. While the inexactness of the science sometimes contributes to these "surprise" events, all too often the "surprise" is the result of multiple failures within the entire warning system: NWS, emergency managers, the community, and the public. Some of these failures are the result of inadequate preparation before the event occurs.

After years of working with emergency managers who were underfunded, underappreciated or non-existent, Steve saw the need for a new approach. He knew how emergency managers operate, what motivates them, and what their challenges are. Specifically, Steve knew how important the concept of "recognition" was to them. Being certified for hazardous material handling, search and rescue, etc., was viewed as a badge of honor by emergency managers. Creating a similar recognition for severe weather preparedness would increase the credibility of weather preparedness programs.

After fleshing out the concept a bit more, we called Mac McLaughlin, Chief of the Meteorological Services in the NWS Southern Region and Gary Woodall, the Southern Region's Regional WCM. They both expressed interest and support.

Steve and I saw many potential benefits. We would improve programs in communities previously lacking commitment to severe weather preparedness as well as laud successful emergency managers for their progressiveness. NWS could offer name recognition, adding clout to a proposal for upgrading a jurisdiction's capabilities.

We also saw opportunity for increased visibility of NWS and its partners. The program would include street signs and press conferences that would keep severe weather preparedness in the public eye. Steve and I also envisioned a potential business benefit for communities in Tornado Alley. Those who live outside this area misperceive the frequency and severity of hazardous weather in this area. Such perceptions hinder a community's ability to attract new business. By certifying a community's severe weather preparedness, that community could acknowledge the true threat of severe weather and proclaim it had taken reasonable steps to mitigate the threat.

Although many of these benefits were a good name, we didn't want any acronyms. We wanted a name that would express the program concept in a single word. We decided on "StormWise."

Testing the Waters

To test the concept, we approached Latimer County, OK, Emergency Manager Gerald Downing and the director of Oklahoma's Office of Civil Emergency Management Albert Ashwood. Steve and I knew if the idea was going to fly, it would need support from key emergency management officials. Both Gerald and Albert expressed interest in StormWise and agreed to serve on our advisory board. Their counterparts in Arkansas, in which Tulsa had some forecast and warning responsibilities, were equally supportive. Arkansas Office of Emergency Services Director John Gibson was a staunch supporter. David Maxwell of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management was an early co-contributor to the development of StormWise.

An advisory board was deemed crucial to the success of the program. StormWise needed to be a collaboration between the NWS and emergency managers. Having an advisory board of representatives from the federal, state and local levels also prevented any one of the supporting organizations from taking flak in the event of an unpopular decision. Because the Tulsa WFO had responsibilities in Oklahoma and Arkansas, the first StormWise Advisory Board was comprised of one emergency management official from each state agency, one from each state's professional association, as well as Steve and me.

Lyle Richardson, Office of Emergency Services Director for Carroll County, AR, suggested we find a way to tie our program to the Insurance Services Organization's (ISO) Community Rating System (CRS). If a community could improve their ISO rating through our program, insurance premiums might be reduced. This was an alien concept to us, but we pursued the idea. After a personal meeting with William Trakamis, ISO representative, we were told StormWise would be included in the next ISO plan for the CRS, but only for communities enrolled in the National Flood Insurance Program. It was a stretch, but there was at least a chance a community could see some immediate financial benefit of the program.

Over the next several months, we surveyed a wide variety of customers on the concept. The response was consistent: "It's a great idea! When can I get my recognition?" Selling StormWise to some NWS managers was not quite as easy. Some were skeptical about how recognition would be used by emergency managers. Many voiced concern over the workload the program would add to WCMs. On this issue, we felt the work necessary to maintain StormWise would be no different than that which WCMs were doing all along. The workload wouldn't necessarily be greater, just different.

NWS was generally supportive of the StormWise idea. In fact, while I presented the idea at Southern Region Headquarters in June 1998, Dan Smith, Chief of Scientific Services for the region, said, "I have always wanted to see an NWS program that could achieve the visibility of the Goodyear blimp. StormWise could be our blimp!" I interpreted that as an endorsement.

The Path to Success

During the spring and summer of 1998, Steve and I hammered out the details of StormWise with help from our emergency management partners. The first set of criteria was generated from a list of capabilities we saw in the better-prepared communities in Oklahoma and Arkansas. Surprisingly, this list has changed little since the program's inception. One of our early challenges, however, was to handle the different level of resources available to the jurisdictions. We needed a way to make the program challenging yet achievable for all communities, regardless of their population and economic situation. Setting a standard only the richest communities could reach would have ensured failure of the program.

Steve's approach was simple, yet elegant. He plotted a histogram of county populations within our county warning area. It revealed four distinct population categories. We then set the number of qualifying criteria for each of the four population categories, with some knowledge of how achievable the criteria would be based on our experience with these communities. Some criteria were non-negotiable: Existence of a 24-hour warning point, redundant warning receiving systems, NOAA Weather Radios in public facilities, etc. The criteria list was sent to the Advisory Board for comment. Final criteria were agreed on at the first StormWise Advisory Board Meeting on June 25, 1998. The program was alive!

The next challenge was to distinguish between counties and cities. This can be a delicate issue in some counties where the city and county officials do not get along. We did not want uninterested cities riding the coattails of a progressive county emergency manager and vice versa. Our approach was to allow counties to apply separately for recognition. The recognition of counties would only apply to unincorporated areas unless the cities applied jointly and could show they met the StormWise criteria. Cities, however, could apply independent of the county.

Word of StormWise spread across Oklahoma like a wildfire. Arkansas was slightly less enthusiastic but the interest was there among the more progressive emergency managers. Oklahoma emergency managers not in the Tulsa's area of responsibility were champing at the bit to take part in the prototype program.

Before we knew it, four jurisdictions were certified as StormWise on February 10, 1999. We held our first press conference and ceremony in Latimer County on February 22, 1999, where we unveiled a StormWise street sign made by an Oklahoma correctional facility. Immediately after that ceremony, I got my first indication of how big StormWise could become. I was handed a phone and told it was a reporter from the Associated Press. The story went national.

The Name Change

Within a month of the first StormWise recognition, my wife called me at work to say she discovered a commercial Website for another "StormWise" program. Fortunately, the name was not deeply rooted yet. Within a week, we gave the Tulsa WFO and River Forecast Center staffs a list of potential names: StormReady won the poll. I hastily designed a StormReady® logo on PowerPoint which has survived with only minor modification. To protect the new name, we the DOC Office of General Counsel to trademark the name and logo. In 2001, that process turned up a commercial venture using the name StormReady® (although it was not registered). An agreement was signed with that company allowing mutual use of the name. On January 15 and March 26, 2002, the StormReady® logo and name, respectively, became officially registered trademarks of the National Weather Service.

The next kink was the language chosen to describe recognition. DOC Office of General Counsel gave the program the green light as long as we did not "certify" a community. We could only "recognize" the community as being StormReady®.

By June 1999, two more StormReady® jurisdictions were recognized within the Tulsa CWA. StormReady was set to expand. Unbeknownst to us, the NWS Strategic Plan for 2000 included a goal of recognizing 20 StormReady® communities in the nation by the end of the fiscal year. This was the moment we knew our baby had grown up! John Ogren became the first national StormReady® program manager. Steve and I advised on how to implement StormReady® nationally, but John did most of the work need to take it national. The establishment of National and Regional Advisory Boards made sense to us. There needed to be some baseline set of standards upon which the Local Advisory Boards could build their programs.

When talk began of making StormReady® a national program, some perceived it as a tornado thing. Those outside Tornado Alley were skeptical about its relevance. But on closer inspection of the criteria, could be applied equally well to areas prone to hurricanes or snowstorms. Tornadoes weren't even mentioned. I'd like to call it foresight, but it was just dumb luck! The point of StormReady® was effective communication and preparedness.

Another local boost for the program came from Carroll Fisher, Insurance Commissioner for Oklahoma, publicly stated his endorsement for StormReady®. At a speech before an OEMA Conference in 2000, the Commissioner stated he would encourage insurance companies to offer discounts up to 5 percent on homeowner's insurance in StormReady® communities. Suddenly StormReady® had the potential for tangible economic benefit to citizens in Oklahoma! Although no discount has yet been set, StormReady® has the potential to be a political and economic lever.

In July 2002, we added the 400th StormReady® designation. Words cannot express the satisfaction and awe I feel about this milestone. The greatest satisfaction comes from seeing struggling communities raise their standards and improve their severe weather preparedness. I call these the "second-tier" communities. Yes, we recognized several "first-tier" communities which had already established impressive, successful programs. They deserved recognition and we were glad to do it; however, I am most gratified when I see communities that used StormReady® as motivation to buy that extra piece of equipment, for cajoling their commissioners to fund improved systems, for implementing a local severe weather training program or for seriously revamping their severe weather operations plan.

As is common in our business, we will never know how many lives we have saved by implementing sound preparedness activities. All I know is Steve Piltz's idea has changed the face of this agency. I was just glad to be in the room when it all started!

By Lans P. Rothfusz, NWS