ST. LOUIS – Alerting the public to imminent, life-threatening dangers posed by severe weather requires a host of sophisticated tools and equipment – Doppler radar, satellites, remote weather sensors, etc. They all give us insights into what the weather is doing now and what it may do in the future.

But one of the most important tools we have in our severe weather warning toolbox has nothing at all to do with the weather.

National Weather Service Chat (NWSchat) is a service the NWS has that links them with broadcast meteorologists, emergency managers, and public safety officials. This gives everyone in the local weather enterprise immediate access to NWS forecasters in real time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

This immediate contact with the NWS allows stakeholders in the weather enterprise to see confirmed storm damage reports coming in from emergency managers, other agencies, and information from meteorologists and helps them to gauge the magnitude of the threat so as to make better, more informed decisions.

What makes this different from the normal warnings for severe weather that are provided to the public is that the NWS is able to share new information in real-time, every 30 seconds, every minute, or as often as necessary.

Back in 2011, not long after coming online, NWS meteorologists used NWSchat to share second by second updates about the Good Friday tornado. Where was it tracking? How strong did it look? And the confidence they had that a life-threatening situation was developing.

The speed with which that information was shared with the media and then passed along to the public unquestionably saved lives.

Unfortunately, NWSchat has now become a victim of its own success. It has become so popular that the network infrastructure used to run the service can no longer reliably host a massive number of users. There have been numerous inopportune failures in recent years during major weather events, here in St. Louis and across the country.

During the December tornado outbreak that killed seven people in the St. Louis area, NWSchat failed multiple times, interrupting the flow of real-time, potentially lifesaving information.

Fast forward to March 5, 2022, in Iowa. NWSchat failed again as more than a dozen tornadoes ripped across the state leaving seven dead and millions of dollars in damage.

That failure caught the attention of lawmakers, including Randy Feenstra of Iowa.

In April, Feenstra introduced a bipartisan bill to modernize faltering National Weather Service emergency communications. In a statement, he says, “…NWSchat has failed our broadcasters, emergency response teams, and the general public. This bipartisan legislation will finally ensure that local officials and emergency personnel receive accurate, timely information that saves lives.”

The proposed bill would provide funding to overhaul NWSchat, putting it on stable ground for years to come. Something emergency managers here applaud.