Joe Crain, a longtime meteorologist on WICS-TV in Springfield, gave on-air criticism Wednesday of the station’s “Code Red” weather warning system, saying it is a “corporate initiative” that “doesn’t recognize that not all storms are equal” and has generated widespread complaints.
“So we want you to know it’s not us,” Crain said during a morning broadcast on a day that actually would see severe weather later. “This is a corporate initiative, the Code Red alert. And behind the scenes, many of us have tried to dissuade it for the last few months, to try something else that’s less controversial to the viewers.”
Rick Lipps, general manager of the Sinclair Broadcast Group station, didn’t immediately return messages asking about Crain’s status. And reached through Facebook, Crain on Thursday morning said, “I’m employed by WICS and have no comment to offer.”
Crain, who has been at Channel 20 since 2004 and is the longest-tenured on-air personality at the Springfield station, did not appear on air during Thursday morning's news shows on WICS, and his picture had been removed from the staff biography page on the Channel 20 website by Thursday afternoon.
During the Wednesday broadcast, Crain noted that with a weather front coming that afternoon and evening, there could be wind gusts in excess of 60 mph, and “we can’t rule out an isolated tornado.”
“Of course, the Code Red weather alert is designed to give an early heads up well before any watches or warnings are issued, to give you the opportunity to plan, prepare and protect your family against strong to severe thunderstorms,” Crain said. “That being said, it’s not the perfect solution because, of course, with Code Red, it’s all-inclusive. It doesn’t recognize that not all storms are created equal.”
He said the National Weather Service has color and number scales that help make their alerts more specific.
“On the other hand, Code Red was created by, likely, a journalism school graduate,” Crain said. “That being said, I’m a journalism school graduate.
“So it’s not perfect. A lot of people (are) not very happy with this over the last few months, since we’ve implemented it on Storm Team 20,” he added. “That’s evident by the thousands of comments on social media, letters to the editor, frequent calls to local talk radio shows. We’ve heard you and, yes, we realize you have some very strong and passionate views about it.”
He also said on air that he understands complaints about the name of the station’s alert.
“When you hear ‘Code Red,’ you think ... as they say, ‘the feces is about to hit the fan.’ So with that being said, we understand your concerns, and we want you to know that we take them very seriously. ... I don’t take myself very seriously, but I do take my job seriously, and my responsibility to the public,” he added.
Crain told viewers to “keep in mind, despite the fact that this facility is owned by a corporation, it’s still licensed under the authority of the Federal Communications Commission to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity. So you still have a voice. Keep those cards and letters coming. I’ll let you be the judge on whether or not Code Red serves the public interest.”
A morning anchor, Justin Carter, in banter with Crain as the weather report ended, said, “The good news we can all agree on is that there are no Code Reds after today.”
“Yes, at least for this week,” Crain said.
“For this week,” Carter echoed.
“I just wanted to get that off my chest,” Crain said of his criticism of the alert system, “because it’s amazing how vile and cruel people can be on social media, and even in person, to myself and other members of the storm team. And we just want to let you know that, hey, it’s not us. We’re just doing our job. After all, we have mouths to feed, bills to pay, just like everybody else. ... So if the boss says ‘Code Red” — says ‘jump’ — we go, ‘how high?’”
David Butt, who retired last summer after 23 years as director of the Sangamon County Office of Emergency Management, said he views the “Code Red” alert as lacking accuracy, as it could apply to locations far from Springfield, including “points as far south as Effingham.”
“I believe what the National Weather Service does would be a better service by Channel 20,” Butt said. “Terms like 'Code Red' have largely been replaced throughout emergency and safety endeavors,” with ways to communicate more specific problems in more specific areas, he said.
“Being alert for severe weather is important,” Butt said, but “persons hearing Code Red repetitively, and especially days in advance of an event, are possibly prone to losing their focus on the emergency,” especially if they end up seeing no storm in their area.
Butt said he doesn’t think the “Code Red” warnings are scaring people, but instead are making them “guffaw.”
“What I see Code Red doing is dulling the people to react to the actual emergencies,” Butt said. “Many times Channel 20 has gotten it right, but many more times … we have had no event in the center of Channel 20’s viewing area, namely Sangamon County.”
A letter to the editor published in Tuesday’s State Journal-Register from Springfield resident Victor Edwards said he was “frankly sick to death” of the Code Red alarms on WICS.
“It would appear that any cloud in the sky would warrant a ‘Code Red,’” Edwards wrote. “This is something like the boy who cried wolf, or Chicken Little, and what it does is make the viewers skeptical of anything the weather people say. … Give us a break from this, weather people!”
There did turn out to be severe weather in Springfield Wednesday afternoon, as a round of thunderstorms in Sangamon County downed power lines and tree limbs. The National Weather Service in Lincoln fielded reports of several “gustnadoes,” or short-lived, ground-based swirling winds. But there were no confirmed tornadoes.
Contact Bernard Schoenburg at firstname.lastname@example.org, (217) 788-1540 or twitter.com/bschoenburg.