Three Keys Toward Your Safety

A key to safety is being able to understand simple, but vital, terminology in the weather community. I don’t expect everyone to know the ins and outs of weather or to even understand some of the words that seem so basic to me. I hope by running my weather services that I can get my following to understand three basic concepts. The first concept is that everyone knows what county they live in. The second is to teach people where to find their county on a map. Finally, and maybe most importantly, it is to get everyone in the mindset in heeding weather call to action products and understanding what they mean. If I can accomplish those three goals in my career, I believe my viewers will be much better prepared for impending bad weather. Being prepared makes you much more likely to remain safe!


Chicago (shown in red) is a small part of the larger county (Cook) that surrounds it.

The first step is getting everyone to recognize what county they live in. Situational awareness directly corresponds with self preservation. Most people in the metropolitan area know that Chicago is located within a large county. What some DON’T know is that that county is not named “Chicago” County. Unlike other large cities such as Baltimore and St. Louis, Chicago is located within Cook County. It is important to understand that the largest city in the county does not automatically mean the county is named after it. For example, Joliet is located in Will County, Bloomington is located in McLean County, and Rockford is in Winnebago County. If you already knew this, you’re in great shape! Those of you who live in Champaign, Peoria, Rock Island, and De Kalb have a bit easier time remembering what county you live in. You may ask why you should know what county you live in? The answer is simple. The National Weather Service and Storm Prediction Center issues convective and non-convective watches and warnings for specific counties. While those watches ultimately include the larger cities encompassing those counties, people are often given a false sense of security when they don’t see their town listed. This is why these products are county based. If Grundy County is under a watch, it includes EVERYONE with a Grundy County address and not just Morris. If you can accurately recite the county you live in you are a third of the way to being a safer and well informed citizen.

Illinois-map-showing-Fulton-CountyKnowing your county by name is not enough. I strongly urge everyone to take a look at the map I provided to the right. Are you able to name you county on it? If you can, that is great! I challenge you to name me all the counties surrounding yours as well. The real geography pros can tell me what counties are where that aren’t near their location. Can anyone tell me what county is highlighted in red here? The point I am trying to make is that knowing your county is one thing, but physically seeing it on a map is just as important as knowing it by name. Most weather products are in a visual form. When you’re watching T.V. the scroll at the bottom is generally free text of the locations impacted, but there is also a map with certain counties highlighted with whatever product is in effect. Using the map to the right as an example. Say this particular county was under a tornado warning. It pops up on your television screen and you DON’T know that county or by name or shape. What if that was your county? What if it was the county next to yours? You don’t want to be having these questions in a severe weather situation. It is important to familiarize yourself well in advance especially if you live near the border of multiple counties. Being able to discern this type of thing is key in early preparedness on a severe weather day. If you see all the counties to the west and southwest highlighted by an important warning, you can pretty much assume your county is next. Don’t wait for your county to activate it’s sirens or call to action policies. If you are prepared beforehand, you’ll be way ahead of the game and be two thirds of the way there!

slide9All the geographical knowledge isn’t worth a word I’ve said if you simply do not know basic weather terminology or do not believe in acting when advised to do so. The most confusion among the general public is the difference between a watch and a warning. To me it is completely cut and dry, but I understand some people just have a tough time grasping it. The National Weather Service created a nice graphic [found to the left] explaining the difference between the two. I will also explain some easy to remember ways to tell the difference. Like the graphic to the left explains, a watch should be seen as a caution sign. Think of a traffic light and it’s laws. Green is day to day life. A green light is proceed through your day at your leisure. A day without any watch, warning, or advisory should be hypothetically considered a “green light.” What happens when that green light turns yellow? In weather terms, a yellow light would be when the National Weather Service issues any type of watch. Whether it is a severe thunderstorm, tornado, flood, or winter storm. To the hypothetical motorist, a yellow light can mean one of two things: #1 – you slow down and prepare to stop or #2 – you accelerate and keep going about your business. The yellow light, though, was an attention grabber and told you CAUTION something changed. Atmospherically speaking, a watch is the NWS way of letting you know “something changed.” The weather is no longer smooth sailing and has become favorable for severe conditions. This is where people begin to get confused, but following the traffic light example is a way to alleviate that. Green means go and yellow means caution. Now we get to the dreaded red light. When you’re driving and see a red light you stop because you don’t want to cause or get in an accident. This should be the same in your line of weather thinking. The NWS is telling you to STOP and take heed of the situation. Red lights in the weather community generally mean that severe weather is occurring or about to occur. Think of it as a child that tried to sneak around to eat a cookie. When your mom sat in the next room and said “I am watching you,” if you were anything like me that was an alert that it was favorable for something unfavorable happening to me. As things progress and that delicious cookie is in your hands, you hear a rumbling and notice your mom at the doorway exclaiming “I am warning you!” That’s your cue to take action and head for cover! One more time…. watch = caution / warning = danger.

What happens if you are one of those people that just refuse to take action and refuse to believe any of the watches or warnings? I strongly urge you to rethink that stance. The NWS is here to help us. They get no financial gain for issuing watches and warnings. I’ve had some people saying that the NWS was in business with big box stores because their doom and gloom forecasts send millions of people running for supplies. Quite the conspiracy wouldn’t you say? 😉 The NWS does not issue warnings because they are bored or feel like it. They are almost always warranted! The job of an NWS forecaster is not an easy one, especially in Northeast Illinois with millions of people inhabiting it. I do NOT envy the job of the forecaster that must decide whether or not to issue a tornado warning for any part of Cook County. I do concede that more times than not your specific location will NOT see severe weather or a tornado, but that’s not because the forecaster got it wrong. Tornadoes generally last under a minute and effect a small area of real estate. Tornado warnings are generally issued for 30-45 minutes. The tornado that hit my house last year had already lifted before the warning was officially issued. A tornado occurred, but the warning went on another 30 minutes. Those downstream of me did NOT see a tornado and they have experienced another occasion where “nothing happened.”

I firmly believe that following these three steps will help you become better prepared for the weather that is sure to come our way this year. Please know your county, know how to find your county, and know what each weather advisory means. It could be the difference between life and death. To those pessimists out there I say this: Living in the “believe it when I see it” mindset is dangerous…. what do you do when this is your “believe it when you see it?”

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About Danny Neal

Danny is a storm chaser from the southside of Chicago and has been chasing since 1998. He has over 100 tornadoes documented as well as numerous other extreme weather events. He routinely teaches and trains others about severe and unusual weather and is considered a great resource for Northern Illinois. As a partner with NOAA, he spends most of his time assisting the National Weather Service Chicago during severe weather operations