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Severe Weather Awareness Week: Weather Warning Terms

Apr 13, 2020 05:42AM ● By Editor

Questions about watches and warnings from NOAA

From the Minnesota Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management - April 13, 2020

Learn the meaning of the various terms for upcoming severe weather

The National Weather Service uses the words "advisory", "watch" and "warning" to alert you to potentially dangerous weather. Understanding these terms and knowing how to react can be a life saver.


An advisory is issued when a hazardous weather or hydrologic event is occurring, imminent or likely. Advisories are for less serious conditions than warnings that cause significant inconvenience and if caution is not exercised, could lead to situations that may threaten life or property.


A watch means weather conditions are favorable for dangerous weather to occur. In other words, a "watch" means watch out for what the weather could do, and be ready to act accordingly. You may wish to alter or have a back-up plan for any outdoor activities or travel.

For events that come and go quickly, such as severe thunderstorms, tornadoes or flash floods, a watch means that the odds are good for the dangerous weather, but it not yet happening. 

When a severe thunderstorm, tornado or flash flood watch is in effect, it means you should look for signs of dangerous weather and maintain access to the latest information. Sometimes a severe thunderstorm, tornado or flash flood can happen so quickly that warnings can't be issued in time.

For longer-lived events, such as floods or winter storms, a watch means that the event isn't an immediate threat. For either kind of event, a watch means you should keep up with the weather news and be ready to act.

A winter storm watch means it's time to prepare by stocking up on emergency supplies and making sure you know what to do if a warning is issued.


For severe thunderstorms, tornadoes and flash floods, a warning means the weather event is imminent or occurring somewhere in the defined warning area and that people need to take shelter as soon as possible.

Outdoor tornado warnings are normally given by sirens. People indoors should listen to radios, TV or Weather Radio warnings to find out the latest information. Depending on local policy, other types of weather warnings may also broadcast via sirens. Check with local emergency management officials to learn about local siren activations.

A winter storm warning means it's not safe to travel or venture outside. If traveling, head for the nearest shelter.

How Alerts Are Issued

Before watches and warnings are issued, the National Weather Service, private forecasters, newspapers, radio and television normally try to alert the public to potential weather dangers.

Forecasters may begin issuing bulletins on winter storms up to three or four days before a storm hits.

But forecasters can't issue alerts for the danger of severe thunderstorms, tornadoes and flash floods that far ahead. Usually, the NWS Storm Prediction Center sends out alerts the day before dangerous weather is likely. Most television weathercasters highlight these alerts on the evening news the day before threatening weather._images_wrn_social_media_2017_tornado_radio_2018png

Weather Radios

A weather radio is one of the best ways to stay tuned-in to dangerous weather. These radios receive broadcasts from the National Weather Service. The broadcasts are from local weather service offices.

Broadcasts include ordinary forecasts of several kinds, including for boating, farming, traveling and outdoor recreation as well as general forecasts for the area. 

The stations also broadcast all watches and warnings. Some weather radios have a feature that turn on the radio automatically when a watch or warning is broadcast. Such "tone alert" weather radios are highly recommended for places where large numbers of people could be endangered by tornadoes or flash floods. These include schools, nursing homes, shopping center security offices, hospitals, and recreation areas such as swimming pools.

This National Weather Service page has information on weather radios, including a list of weather radio stations in each state.

Preparing in the Digital Age

We live in a mobile digital world these days. According to the Pew Research Center, a 2016 study found most of us have at least one smartphone (if not two), plus computers and tablets, in our households. 

When we live much of our lives online (or in a digital cloud), it makes sense to utilize our technology tools before, during and after a crises to:

  • Prepare for real-world emergencies.
  • Access recovery information.
  • Communicate with loved ones.
  • Manage financial affairs.

In addition to documenting your family's emergency plan on paper, you can also plug that same information into the electronic devices of every family member so it's at your fingertips when you need it most. 


  • Program "in case of emergency" (ICE) contacts into your cell phone.
  • Make sure you receive alerts and warnings and ensure the notifications are turned on. In an emergency, authorities may use the Emergency Alert System (EAS) to send Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs). The notification will sound just like Amber Alerts.
  • Save your family's emergency meeting spot in your cell phone's map app as a favorite location. 
  • Download the FEMA app to access disaster preparedness tips, look for open shelters and Disaster Recovery Centers, and report damages. 
  • In an emergency, keep phone calls brief to help reduce network congestion. 
  • Conserve your battery by reducing screen brightness, placing your phone in airplane mode, and closing unused apps. 


Text Messaging, Email and Social Media

  • Receive text message updates from FEMA. Receive monthly preparedness tips by texting PREPARE to 43362 (4FEMA).
  • Text messaging and the internet often work when voice service isn't available. By the end of 2017, Minnesota will have Text-to-911 service statewide, so that will be an option to request help.
  • Subscribe to email alerts from your local National Weather Service office for the latest advisories, watches and warnings.
  • Follow public safety agencies and organizations on social media. They will communicate life-saving information in an emergency. 
  • During a disaster, pay attention to the hashtags that public safety agencies and organizations use in social media posts. Use those same hashtags so public safety can respond accordingly. 
  • Use social media channels to let family and friends know you are safe. 

Other Considerations

  • Keep contacts updated across all channels, including phone, email and social media. 
  • Keep extra batteries for your phone and any other electronic devices in a safe and accessible place. 
  • Make sure you have a backup power source (like generators, solar and hand crank chargers) for when the utilities go down. 
  • Prepare a family contact sheet and keep it in multiple locations like your emergency kit at home and your emergency kit in your vehicle. This will be helpful when all battery power is lost. 
  • If you have a traditional landline phone, keep at least one non-cordless receiver in your home. It will work even if you lose power.
  • Following a disaster, resist using your mobile device to watch streaming videos, download music or play games. Doing so will help emergency calls get through to 911. Remember, public safety is using that same network to communicate information back and forth. 
For additional information and more digital preparedness tips, visit the Get Tech Ready website.


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