Special Report: First Warning

April 27, 2011. The outbreak begins. It's a nonstop onslaught of tornadoes that eventually killed hundreds, injured thousands and changed lives forever. But even before the first twister was on the ground, the National Weather Service was warning of the potential danger.

There are 120 National Weather Service offices in the United States, and the weather service personnel are the only people with authority to issue warnings. Their main mission is public safety.

Jim Stefkovich runs the weather service office south of Birmingham. He and his staff issue watches and warnings for 39 of Alabama's 67 counties. The safety of hundreds of thousands of people is in his hands.

"Nobody feels worse about a missed forecast than we do," Stefkovich explains. "We want to be perfect. The science does not allow us to be perfect. So, we're always striving to get better." Stefkovich says it's very rewarding when people take action and heed the warnings.

Most people heeded the warnings on April 27, going to their safe place. But that's not always the case.  "About 80-85 percent of all tornadoes that occur are going to be very weak, short-lived, not on the ground very long," Stefkovich says, "about 14 percent strong tornadoes and less than 1 percent violent tornadoes."

Stefkovich says when his office issues a tornado warning, "there is a high likely hood that these tornadoes will be ones will less than 100 mph." Those tornadoes can still produce a lot of damage, he cautions, and can be life threatening, but "gigantic tornadoes are pretty rare."

Stefkovich says when a person hears a tornado warning, they should "dig deeper into the message." He suggests you ask where the storm is located, where you are in relation to that storm and then determine if it's anywhere near you.

"The bottom line is, anytime we issue a warning, we believe it has the potential to produce a tornado."

Despite the best efforts of meteorologists and media outlets, many folks have become complacent, failing to take any action even when warning sirens are wailing.

"They give you the warning and then you can take action from there if you think it's really coming or not," says Bob Schlechty of Montgomery. "Take action, if not it's better to be safe than sorry."

"I think there's always going to be a certain amount of complacency, no matter what, but obviously we need to continue to investigate to make sure that people are taking these warnings seriously, and what can we do, working together to replace that complacency," Stefkovich believes.

Because of the large number of tornado warnings issued by the Birmingham office, it has a higher-than-average false alarm rate, something that troubles Stefkovich and his staff.

"We're not satisfied," he said. "Again, I'm not trying to justify our high false alarm rate. We need to lower it. Part of it is science. We don't know why one storm produces a tornado and another storm doesn't. And then we also have to find ways, what are we going to do with those weak short lived tornadoes."

Hopefully, more Alabamians will remember the mass destruction and loss of life in the April 27th tornado outbreak and take no chances.

"You listen to the weather radio, you turn on WSFA, and you get the latest information, and you figure out where you are in relation to that storm and whether you need to take action or not," Stefkovich said.

Not all tornado warnings are some same. Some, like the ones on April 27th carry much more urgency. Others involve weaker, brief spin-up tornadoes which can still do a lot of damage.

Stay informed and stay safe.

Copyright 2011 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.