The National Weather Service is asking users to snap a “safe place selfie” and post it to social media Wednesday in an effort to raise awareness for the need to have a severe weather plan. The springtime campaign comes as the country approaches peak tornado season, during which twisters swarm the Plains and South into late April, May and June.
The Weather Service hopes the campaign will prompt users to consciously think about and identify a place of safety in their homes and work places, while also raising awareness on social media of the need to do so.
Just two weeks ago, dozens of lives were saved in Alabama when residents put their sheltering plans into use and survived a series of massive, vicious tornadoes. Meteorologists are optimistic that the tales of survival that emerged from that event will inspire similar lifesaving actions in the future.
You can participate by tweeting with the hashtag #SafePlaceSelfie.
“It’s preparedness and action,” said Doug Hilderbrand, National Weather Service preparedness and resilience program lead, in a phone interview Tuesday. “We’re asking people to actually do the preparedness [in this campaign]; it’s action-oriented.”
The campaign was born in 2016, inspired by the social media-savvy National Weather Association. That prompted the National Weather Service to amplify the message and grow the safe place selfie trend on a nationwide scale.
“I said, ‘I love this idea so much, this needs to be a national campaign,’ ” Hilderbrand said. “Through the Weather-Ready Nation program, we’ve been sort of building the external engagement over these five years. I’m really excited for tomorrow [Wednesday].”
Hilderbrand said the Weather Service has been partnering with the media and emergency management officials to raise awareness before the worst part of severe weather season.
“You can issue a tornado warning, but if [someone doesn’t] have an adequate safe place, that warning goes for naught,” Hilderbrand said.
Last year, the digital campaign had more than 90 million Twitter impressions, reached 23,000,000 users and elicited 2,500 selfie submissions. Users snapped photos of themselves in their safe places — usually an interior room on the lowest floor of a home or business. Many brought pets, children or colleagues, and donned bicycle helmets.
“I want to see that [selfie number] at 100,000,” Hilderbrand said.
He aims to enlist the help of professional athletes and celebrities in getting the word out even more.
“Celebrities tend to come in on the back end of disasters,” Hilderbrand said. “I’d like to see them come in more proactively.”
Hilderbrand said the campaign isn’t just about finding a safe place at home — it’s about making sure it’s ready, and stocked with items such as bicycle helmets or water before severe weather strikes.
“You don’t want to waste time going to the garage and collecting the helmets or anything [when a warning is issued],” Hilderbrand said. “You want to be thinking ahead. That’s why these Storm Prediction Center outlooks are so important. You want to be [preparing for it] from that watch periods.”
That means stocking your place of refuge with whatever you might need — water, gloves, close-toed shoes, an air horn, snacks, games to entertain the kids, and so forth.
Hilderbrand also emphasized that the “safe place selfie” mentality shouldn’t just be a one-time thing — it should be something that people keep in the back of their mind year round.
“When you get to the golf course, ask yourself, ‘what’s my safe place from lightning?’ Do they offer shelter out here on the more exposed parts? When you’re at the gym, school or work … know your safe place,” Hilderbrand said. “It’s just like when you get on the airplane — you look at those various emergency exits.”
The goal is that, when disaster does strike, users already know what to do instinctively and automatically from having practiced and prepared in advance. It’s the same reason people have fire drills. Forming habits matter.
“Another really important clarification is this goes beyond severe weather [thunderstorms],” Hilderbrand said. “We’re really talking the full portfolio of weather hazards here. Your safe place for one hazard may be unsafe for another.”
That means knowing what specific risks exist at your location, whether that include tornadoes, wildfires, flash floods, destructive hailstorms or any combination. Sheltering from a tornado, at the lowest level of a dwelling, is essentially the opposite of evacuating from flooding, when you head for high ground. Knowing your safe place is predicated on understanding the hazards that could affect you.
“And oftentimes when you travel to new locations, there will be various hazards you may not be thinking of,” Hilderbrand said. “Do a little research. You might be from Kansas, but if you go to California, think ‘what if there’s an earthquake,’ and know what to do.”
And above all, Hilderbrand said it’s about looking out for neighbors, loved ones and strangers alike. He hopes this campaign will spark household conversations about sheltering from dangerous weather.
“Especially for the elderly and the vulnerable, give them a call, and ask them ‘do you know where your safe place is?’ ” Hilderbrand said.
Less than two weeks ago, three people in Nanafalia, Ala., were urged up the road by their boss, who called about a tornado warning, and told them not to remain in their mobile home. They sheltered at a site-built location about a mile away, and returned home to find their mobile home destroyed. Simple calls can save a life.
“Be that hero,” Hilderbrand said.