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ABC 17 News Investigates

Weather service communication outages pose threats in severe weather

COLUMBIA, Mo. (KMIZ)

The National Weather Service chatroom, which is used to alert core partners, including law enforcement, emergency management and inevitably the public about real time threats and warnings, has been experiencing outages during severe weather events.

A nationwide outage in March rendered the weather service's chat function, which also serves as a source of communication, inaccessible for a whole day. At the time, places in the Southeast were dealing with severe weather and couldn't turn to the chat for information.

The NWS chat is a system used to communicate with core partners including broadcast meteorologists, emergency management, law enforcement and radio operators. However, Kevin Deitsch, the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in St. Louis, said recent issues with the platform's stability have made it inaccessible nationwide at times.

"Basically it is becoming so popular that its exceeding its limit, and there are plans in place to fix that and get it on a new server over the next several months," Deitsch said. "We are victim to our own success."

The National Weather Service has started taking steps to improve the chat function's usefulness. It's working to have fewer people in the chat service at once by limiting it to just those who are dealing with severe weather or winter weather at the time.

Deitsch said communication is key between the core partners, especially when dealing with severe weather, to keep communities aware of threats and warnings as soon as they come in.

"If say you are in a hospital, they need to know if they need to move patients if a tornado is on its way, mobile home parks need to know if they have to move their people to storm shelters, so it's things like that the communication of what the storm threats are and some of the reports we are getting out of those storms are so important to the decision-makers in our communities," Deitsch said.

The National Weather Service chat function is especially helpful for emergency management. If crews don't have a meteorology background, they can't look at radar and know the threats or what a specific storm is going to do. The chat function allows emergency management to ask questions or know when to issue warnings.

Chris Kelley, the deputy director of Boone County Emergency Management, said the chat can be crucial for severe weather information including when to sound alarms in the county.

However, the the chat function is not the only way for emergency management to get information during a severe weather threat.

"It's a nice tool in our toolbox, but I don't think that small outage concerns us here in emergency management because there are other ways of facilitating communication between the weather service, joint communications and Boone County Emergency Management," Kelley said.

ABC 17 Stormtrack Chief Meteorologist Jessica Hafner said the chat function is a way to get information and warnings in real-time to keep viewers updated on the latest weather information.

"If we are going on air with a tornado warning and we don't have that, all we have is our radar data, that's obviously a great resource but it's good to have that ground confirmation of what's happening," Hafner said.

Broadcast meteorologists also use the chat function for spotter reports. Storm spotters will send reports to the National Weather Service, which are automatically sent to the chat. However, if the chat is unavailable, Hafner said it's difficult to communicate with the weather service or see spotter reports.

"We need those ground-level reports to let us know what's actually happening on the ground and if we don't have that from the spotters or the National Weather Service that's taking a big chunk out of our coverage and the important things we need to tell viewers," Hafner said.

The National Weather Service has backups for the chat function now because of the recent issues. It implemented a backup using Google Play in order to always have the ability to communicate and not solely rely on one chat software.

"That's another step we have taken to ensure communication continues regardless if this chat is having issues or not," Deitsch said.

The National Weather Service is hoping to see vast improvements with the service in the next few months to ensure this kind of outage does not happen again.

NWS did not say what the improvements are or how much they’ll cost.

Local News / News / Top Stories / Weather
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Zola Crowder

Zola Crowder joined the ABC 17 News team as a multimedia journalist in June 2020 after graduating from the University of Missouri with a broadcast journalism degree. Before reporting at ABC 17, Zola was a reporter at KOMU where she learned to cover politics, crime, education, economics and more.

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