Can Weather Captions Save Lives in Tornado Alley?


My first experience with a tornado was at the age of five. My Oklahoma childhood home in the late 1970s, as well as all those in our neighborhood, didn’t have a basement or cellar. A group of 20 of us gathered in an underground community storm shelter. We sat in complete darkness, save for the flickering of flashlights. A battery-operated radio was tuned into the local weather report. Fortunately for me and my parents at the time, we all had normal hearing and could heed the broadcasted warnings.

Fast forward to February 28 of this year. My three children were tucked into their beds, and I had just settled in to watch the 10 o’clock news. The TV station’s chief meteorologist cut in with a severe thunderstorm and tornado alert. I saw a list of towns at the left of the screen. One of those towns was mine. I strained to hear the weatherperson describe the storm patterns. But I couldn’t understand a word. His bulletin—which was uncaptioned—fell on my deaf ears.

The next morning, I learned that communities to the west and south of me had suffered significant storm damage. More than a dozen people died.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) specifies emergency weather accessibility guidelines. They include captions and/or descriptive graphics for the hard of hearing and deaf, and voice description for those who are blind. The only weather graphics I noticed on the evening of February 28 were a list of towns and a colored map. Where were the captions?

A couple of days later, I inquired about this with my local NBC affiliate station’s chief meteorologist, along with another weatherperson and the 10 o’clock anchorperson:

“I am a faithful follower of your broadcasts. On the evening of Feb. 28, I was unable to follow some of your live tornado and thunderstorm coverage due to lack of captions. As a person with hearing loss, captions are not only a necessity but could be life saving in the event of hazardous weather. Could management at your station be alerted to this vital need?”

My messages caught their immediate attention. The anchorperson requested further explanation from me, which I furnished:

“All of the breaking news reports regarding field reported info, as well as your comments regarding these reports, weren’t captioned (10:00pm news on Feb. 28, 2012). I was worried that you might have been discussing my town in some of those reports I couldn’t hear. Thanks for checking into this. Might I suggest that your producers provide a rolling ticker at the bottom of the screen a few seconds after uncaptioned reports to summarize what was spoken?”

I also contacted people with hearing loss who live outside of my state. Most of the larger TV broadcast markets, such as Philadelphia and Atlanta, caption their weather reports. Smaller markets including Oklahoma City and Kansas City—two cities hit consistently by thunderstorms and tornadoes—do not caption their weather alerts.

According to Jim House with the Community Emergency Preparedness Information Network (CEPIN), the size of a community has “no bearing on the access to emergency information.” While captioned weather broadcasts, especially in emergency situations are vital, some news stations do not provide this service. Still, House said, the information “must be visible and able to be understood, like graphics and maps.”

The FCC guidelines are related to “emergency weather notifications requiring TV stations to provide captioning,” said Rebecca Rosenthal with the Kansas Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. “The problem with this ruling it is left up to the stations to decide what is deemed an emergency. It is not a perfect ruling.”

Rosenthal’s suggestions: File a complaint with the TV station when weather captions aren’t provided. Then file a complaint with the FCC.

I did both.

Can captions save lives? In the event of a tornado or thunderstorm, TV weather captions are absolutely essential to those of us who cannot hear. Without them, I may not know that hazardous weather is within a mile of my home. I wouldn’t be able to protect my children, and that puts us all in danger.

Do you think weather maps and graphics alone are adequate to alert people with hearing loss? Share your comments here.

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6 thoughts on “Can Weather Captions Save Lives in Tornado Alley?

  1. I watch WSFA(12) and I notice that there regular weather reports are not captioned, which I pay close attention to, because of my hearing loss. I will say however, that last week, when they were doing nothing but the weather between 6:00 and 7:30 that the weather report was captioned. I was very glad, as I live in Pike Road and at the time I was right in line for a tornado. However, at 6:35, they changed it t a severe thunderstorm warning. However, if this report had not been captioned I would not have been aware. I use captionning for every show I watch. I feel that all weather reports should be captioned the same as the rest of the news show.

    • Ellie – Thank you for your message. It seems as if you can vividly relate to my post, and I hope that your local weather reports will become captioned consistently. Keep advocating for it!

  2. Shanna, great job!! As a hearing person, I don’t even think about some of the things you do. I certainly do now. Thank you for being active!!

    • Howie – Thanks for your comments. I’m sure you can understand that in Oklahoma, the weather is unpredictable. Wouldn’t your loved ones with hearing loss appreciate the courtesy of being able to understand what the weatherperson is saying?

  3. Hi, I’m profoundly hearing impaired and use a hearing aid and C.I., and audio loop equipment to hear radio and TV. I do fairly well so don’t use captioning, but sometimes it helps when they have the extremely aggravating music playing when someone is talking. I could never tolerate that. So I want to extend my thanks to you for bringing the need for captioning to people in the TV business.
    However I would like to offer another and entirely different line of thinking to the dangers of severe weather. This nation and its people should call for a new WPA-type program to design and build new and vastly more rigid housing–iron reinforced concrete for instance, for every home destroyed in tornadoes, and then as a low cost replacement for anyone who wants them in tornado prone areas.
    I can’t help but think of the huge increase in employment, tax dollars and economic recovery this could start. Maybe you and others could bring this to the attention of those who can act on this. Thank you and take care.

    • Jay – Thank you for commenting. Good for you in getting the technological help you need with your hearing loss. I appreciate your outside-of-the-box ideas about making homes safer in unpredictable weather. Keep us posted on what you find out in this area.

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