In 2015 over 300 emergency responders from around the UK came together in a series of workshops led by the Met Office. Its objective? To gather insights and opinions that will help develop the National Severe Weather Warning Service (NSWWS), a government-funded service that places the Met Office close to the heart of the response community.
The NSWWS launched in 1988 as a threshold-based service, following the previous year's Great Storm. Met Office forecasters monitored the weather and issued warnings when certain weather levels were reached.
As time went on and the service evolved, it became clear that emergency responders didn't need to know if there would be, say, 40mm of rain or 5cm of snow. Instead, understanding if and how the weather conditions would affect them, their workload and ability to get about was more important.
As Mel Harrowsmith, Met Office Head of Civil Contingencies explains, "Direct feedback from the emergency response community really drove us to shift from a threshold-based to an impact-based warning service in 2011." But this was no small change. So, following a period of 'bedding in', the Met Office sought the opinions of responders once more.
Weighing up the warning service
In 2015, the Met Office hosted emergency responder workshops across the UK, from Exeter right up to Inverness and across to Belfast. These included Category 1 and 2 responders from local government, the emergency services, the Environment Agency, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, health authorities, and utility companies. Members of key voluntary sector organisations also attended.
The Met Office had two main aims. Firstly, to benchmark the current warning service - making sure it was continuing to work effectively and efficiently, and serving the needs of today's emergency responders. Secondly, the aim was to identify potential improvements.
Listening and understanding
With ten workshops and 371 responders, the Met Office came away with a raft of useful information and insights. Although working through everything will take time, key outcomes are already coming through (see the box for more detail).
The Met Office asked whether NSWWS should expand to cover more impacts than the current five weather types: fog, ice, wind, rain and snow. "We don't currently warn for thunderstorms and lightning, but it's clear that's of interest. So we need to consider bringing those impacts into NSWWS," says Mel. At the same time, emergency responders indicated a need for improved accuracy around summer storms - systems with hazard potential that are notoriously difficult to pinpoint.
"The feedback on this will go right to the core of the Met Office - into the modelling, science and observation work we do," Mel explains. "In turn, this will feed into storm forecasts and warnings making them more accurate."
Responders also talked about the different ways they access weather warnings. For most, any forecast information, however short notice, is key. This is particularly relevant, for example, when a storm is developing.
"Thunderstorms can happen very fast," adds Mel, "so we need to make sure we can continue to get messages to the community efficiently and quickly. That's a big area for us to work on in the future."
Evolution - not revolution
At the same time, the Met Office is collating high volumes of information generated by public surveys. Overlaying that on emergency responder workshop feedback has revealed that both groups are saying similar things about their weather warning needs. All that information has given the Met Office a clear steer on where next to take the NSWWS.
Overwhelmingly, emergency responders told the Met Office that the NSWWS is working. The feedback centred on developing the next generation of weather warnings. So, reassuringly, it's now about evolution, rather than revolution.
The Met Office workshops generated a mountain of fantastic feedback that will improve our ability to:
Increase scope of weather warnings
Summer storms can lead to lightning and localised flooding - putting emergency responders on high alert. There's therefore a big interest in seeing thunderstorms and lightning included as impacts within the NSWWS.
Get the message out
Easy-to-access digital communication channels are becoming increasingly important, especially when emergency responders are 'on the road'. The Met Office plans to continue developing mechanisms that will quickly send weather warnings out - helping emergency responders to plan and respond effectively.
The sessions pooled a valuable collection of market intelligence that could benefit other organisations across the country. The Met Office now plans to share information on natural hazards, for example, with partners including the Environment Agency and Scottish Environment Protection Agency.