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  • Writer's picturejeannettesutton

5-Star Winter Storm Messaging

A Winter Storm warning issued by Erie County

In 2022, Erie County and the city of Buffalo experienced a catastrophic winter storm at the height of the Christmas holiday, resulting in days long power outages, stranded drivers, and dozens of deaths. Multiple reports and analyses commented on the lack of direct communication to the public, especially using the one tool that reaches all cell phones without the need to opt in: Wireless Emergency Alerts (in full transparency, the editor of The Warn Room, Jeannette Sutton, PhD, is also conducting research funded by Erie County to assist them in future winter storm risk communication).

This past week, as the January 13 winter storm approached Erie County, the team worked to craft messages that would be deployed across multiple channels, including WEA, to help their constituents prepare for the storm using direct and actionable language. The message presented here represents a 5-star warning that includes all of the elements necessary for effective messaging. Let's review...

Source: Erie County

Hazard: Winter Storm

Hazard Description: heavy snow, damaging winds, low temperatures. Will cause unsafe road and outdoor conditions. Tree and power line damage will also cause power outages. Lakeshore flooding is also possible.

Location: Western NY

Time: Saturday and Sunday

Protective Actions: limit travel time and time outdoors, watch for weather updates, check on neighbors

Extra credit points go for adding a URL {] and using ALL CAPS to call attention to the key text (which is sort of buried in the middle of the message, but is easily seen because of the differences in font).

Some additional things we really like about this message: they clearly explain the potential conditions, which helps the message receiver understand why they are asked to limit travel and time outdoors. There is no jargon, making this more easily readable and translatable. They also ask people to take some personal responsibility by watching for weather updates. And finally, they encourage their constituents to check on each other - to share the message with others, to be neighborly as a storm is bearing down.

Notably, this message was issued at 9:00am on Saturday morning -- many hours before the storm arrived, giving people time to prepare if they needed to. The Erie County Exec also used his Twitter channel to announce that a WEA would be issued, giving some people a heads up that their morning snooze might be cut short. And, although NYS Dept of Homeland Security did issue additional WEAs over the weekend, the NWS did not.

For more recommended contents, be sure to download The Warning Lexicon - it's free and offers step-by-step instructions on how to write a better warning message.


Feel free to post this on your social media site, just remember to attribute it to The Warn Room and include the web address: - Thank you!

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Jan 31

The fact that the State, County,and City didn't access IPAWS for the Dec 2022 storm is inexcusable. 50 people died.


Jan 18

Wish you were working in the Louisville area. We had a winter storm come through and the warning here was awful. It was laughable bad after learning about warnings from you. Wish I'd saved it so I could have sent it to you. Another great blog entry btw. 😉

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