Do I call a tornado in to 911? The answer may surprise you

A 911 operator takes a call at the Jackson, TN 911 Dispatch Center. Photo courtesy: Mark Wolfe/FEMA News

You’re at home, and the NOAA Weather Radio goes off for a tornado warning for portions of your county…and you are in the warning polygon. You’ve got your AllisonHouse Maps, or Radarscope, or GREarth, or other radar software up and running, and you can see you’re in the warning polygon. You can also see by the animation, or loop of the last 10 images, that the storm and the tornado associated with it, are headed your way.

15 minutes after the NOAA Weather Radio blares out the warning, you can see the lowering of the storm base, and a large, cone or wedge-shaped tornado underneath it. The wind picks up as it gets closer. You watch in horror as small pieces of debris start falling on your house. But then you see it translating from left to right: an indication that you are not in its path. It passes 1.5 miles north of your house or apartment. However,  you want to tell people what’s going on so those upstream can take action. So, as the tornado comes into view, you call 911 and report it, before heading into your basement or storm shelter. Are you doing the right thing? In this case, the answer may surprise you….but the answer is probably not, when it comes to calling 911.

Wait a minute. Even the National Weather Service has, over the years, encouraged non-spotters to call 911 to report a tornado. But that has stopped. Why? It’s simple, actually: as the country has grown in population, 911 centers have grown, but they aren’t big enough to handle major events by themselves.

In a county with a small population, there may only be 2 people on duty 24/7. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, in some cases, there’s only 1 person (in one city in our county, there is only one on duty 24/7!). And they won’t have time to call the National Weather Service, because they are being slammed by “I see a tornado!” calls. Meanwhile, people who have been hit by the tornado and are injured or dying might not get through, because the 911 lines are jammed with reports that will never leave the dispatch center due to call volume. There simply isn’t time for them to call when the 911 alarm is going off continuously.

Go ahead, ask a seasoned 911 operator, and they’ll tell you the same thing: outside of mass shootings, the worst event they have to deal with by far are weather events. Blizzards and hurricanes (lots of people trapped, calling for help), squall lines and tornadoes. People report shelf clouds as tornadoes, and people call in tornadoes and the police try to check out every report. Meanwhile, people behind the storm lay injured and dying…and, well, their 911 call gets bounced to a distant county, or doesn’t go through at all due to call volume overload.

But a tornado IS an emergency, right? Heck, there’s even a “tornado emergency” that the National Weather Service uses, right? Well, yes and no. It’s only an emergency for 911 centers AFTER the storm has hit you, AND there is a life-threatening issue. You don’t call in a heart attack or car wreck before it happens; you only do it just immediately after it has happened or as symptoms have already started happening. And this is a big problem: if you call with a report of a tornado to 911, you may very well block a call from reaching an operator who needs an ambulance or deputy NOW because of the storm.

So when do I call 911 for weather-related incidents? When one or more of the following criteria are met:

1. You have a life-threatening situation, serious injury or fatality because of a weather event that has occurred;

2. You have power lines down that or other utility issues (water main break, gas leak) that pose an immediate threat to life and property. If it’s live on the street or alley or public sidewalk, or threatens to injure kill those walking or driving past “if it’s arcing or sparking”, THEN call 911. Otherwise, call your utility company instead, and, if one of those conditions above are met, call 911 and THEN call your utility company. Do not ever call 911 to say “your power is out” unless you have a family member who has a serious medical condition (hooked onto a medical device that requires electricity).

3. You are reporting serious damage that is affecting people. A tree down in your yard or on your house does not count (unless someone is trapped or hurt because of the tree lying in your house!). Immediately call your insurance adjuster if a tree falls on your house or property, and after all are safe and accounted for.

Notice what’s missing? No disrespect intended, but 911 operators do not have the time to call the National Weather Service. They just don’t, for nearly 100% of the time these days. Seeing a grove of trees down in a field from a tornado isn’t an emergency. Seeing one or more of them lying on a road, vehicle or occupied vehicle is. They still may not have the time to report it to the National Weather Service.

So, if you see a tornado, what should you do to report it? Take a spotter training class from your local National Weather Service (NWS) office! They are in full swing as I type this; you can check, and then click on the area of the country you live in on the map. That takes you to your local office. Then, once you get officially trained for 2 hours, you get their direct line to the forecaster issuing the warnings…which almost everyone sees on their phones, TV and radio. They are to provide the official warning, not you. Now, if you call the NWS and then call relatives and friends, that’s fine as long as you are safe, but try to text them instead of calling them with 4G or 3G service due to more bandwidth available for text messages (5G uses the same channel for voice and data, and usually has much more capacity, so calling or texting is fine).

In short, call 911 for something you see that has caused a life-threatening emergency. Notice the past participle here: For tornadoes, high winds and hail, call the NWS if you see it happen, not 911. Chances are, the 911 operator will politely say “thank you for the report”, and do nothing about it, because they have hundreds more of those calls to deal with, as people with immediate life-threatening emergencies try to call in and get a busy signal, or bounced to a call center far away. As 911 operators are trained to say: “911 is for life-threatening emergencies only”. Let’s keep the 911 lines open for those who have an emergency that is life or death for you or someone else *at this very second, or in the immediate aftermath*. By not calling 911 unnecessarily, you serve your community, and your neighbors, in a very positive way, because those who need the help right now…will be able to quickly get it.

For a more complete list on when exactly to call 911, see these authoritative resources:

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