StormReady®: From Idea to National
by Lans P. Rothfusz, Meteorologist in Charge, Peachtree
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
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
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 were 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
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
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 potentail 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
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!