James Spann on Meteorology, Mental Health, and Giving Back

Friendly. Humble. Hard-working. Dedicated. These are just a few words to describe James Spann, whom I recently had the privilege of speaking with. If you aren’t from the South or in the field of meteorology, you might not be familiar with the local favorite, but I can guarantee that anyone, from anywhere would enjoy sitting down and talking with him. James, the Chief Meteorologist for ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Alabama, has a gentle, easy-going way of talking, while also having the ability to get right to the point – a skill that no doubt has come in handy (and been sharpened by) through years of television and radio broadcasts.

James spent his early childhood in Greenville, a small town in southern Alabama, and though this part of his journey will not be shared in today’s blog, I think it’s something many will resonate with. To learn more about where James’ story began and the winding road that brought him to where he is today, I encourage you to read his autobiography, “Weathering Life.” He has persevered through many challenging situations that have helped shape him into the person he is today. Who is that, you ask? Let’s dive in…

Day to Day Routine

I love a good routine and thrive when I have a structured schedule, but James’ productivity puts my best days to shame! His alarm goes off at 4:30 AM most mornings, earlier if there is a severe weather threat in the area, and he starts his mornings at his home studio. He gives the TV weather broadcast from his home studio, followed by a radio broadcast that is aired on 24 commercial radio stations across the country. He writes a daily weather discussion for his weather blog, and produces a “Weather Xtreme” video (sometimes a “live” video, depending on the weather situation unfolding) to post with that as well. He usually wraps up these activities around 8:00 AM, and then heads off to talk to a school. Pre-COVID, he visited 1-2 schools a day, and though he can’t be there in-person right now, he’s continuing to connect with the community virtually.

He then makes his way to the studio, where he works from around 1:30 PM to 11:30 PM, as he’s on the evening newscasts at 4, 5, 6, and 10 PM. During this time, he’s also producing additional radio segments and writing an afternoon weather discussion with another video. He is also always (24 hours a day/7 days a week) monitoring his social media, trying to monitor people’s questions across all social platforms, which seems to be me like a full-time job in itself! When his day finally ends, he tries to get to sleep by 1:00 AM, which puts him right at 3.5 hours of sleep on his best days. Though he admits this is not the healthiest, he does make time for quick five-minute naps throughout the day and is able to get more sleep on the weekends.

His passion and dedication were apparent as he spoke of his schedule; it was clear that this is what he wants. He doesn’t shy away from the fact that it is challenging, and notes that to be successful in this field you have to be willing to put in long hours and work really hard. He also really loves his job, and said that “If you love weather, it’s the greatest job in the world.”

James Spann visiting Haleyville Elementary in March 2020. – Courtesy North West Alabamian

Balancing it All

We also talked about the rise of social media, and the impact it has. James feels fortunate that his kids are now grown, and social media wasn’t as prominent when they were growing up as it is now, so he was able to spend quality time with them. He and his wife make time for quality talks in the morning before he leaves for the day, and they also eat dinner together after the 6:00 PM newscast (as long as there isn’t active weather in the area).

Juggling work, family, and community commitments, including navigating the beast of social media, can take a toll on mental health for all of us. In order to combat this, he tries getting “off the grid” every Sunday by going to play tennis. He loves tennis so much that he plays for two to four hours at a time! James places high value on giving back to his community and believes that being a servant to a community that has served him so well is vital to his happiness. One of his largest philanthropic commitments is serving as the chairman of a board of large hospital in Birmingham. While it takes a good chunk of time, he serving the community is just as important for his personal mental health as it is for the community.

Mental health is so important, and for a long time, it wasn’t discussed much – especially in the field of meteorology. However, times are changing and there is a lot of work currently being done to highlight mental health awareness in our field. James referenced his friend, Rick Smith (a Warning Coordination Meteorologist in Norman, Oklahoma), who has done a lot of work to improve mental health in meteorology. Whether it’s dealing with trolls on social media or suffering from PTSD after a traumatic weather event, the job can be quite challenging, and it’s refreshing to see such a focus being put on mental health.

Despite the negatives (like navigating a crazy sleep schedule and dealing with social media trolls), James continued to reiterate how much he loved his job, and that really shone through his words and outlook on life. In fact, when I asked him what was the last thing he got really excited about…he said that he honestly just loves coming to work every day. The last day he was really excited was March 17, 2021, when a system produced 25 tornadoes across the state of Alabama. There was zero loss of life and no serious injuries, despite some significant tornadoes, and James couldn’t say enough about how happy that made him. He went on to say that it’s not just a testament of what he and his team do, but of the people across the state – hearing the message, responding, having a plan in place, and implementing the plan. “Life doesn’t get any better than that.”

Severe Weather

Alabama is no stranger to severe weather, and I wanted to ask James how the April 2011 outbreak impacted him and his family, as well as the impacts of the recent tornadoes in March. Fortunately for James and his family, neither he nor his relatives were impacted directly by a tornado on April 27, 2011. However, it’s clear that day had lifetime impacts on James. He actually published a book, “All You Can Do Is Pray” on the ten year anniversary in order to preserve the day, including everything from the insides of working in a weather office to the untold stories of the victims. Though there was widespread news coverage, when you have 62 tornadoes in one day, some will slip between the cracks (especially ten years ago when social media was around, but not as widely used as it is now). There are stories that were never told, and though it was emotionally exhausting to turn these stories into a book, it was something that James felt strongly was needed. He encourages meteorologists to invest in the people you serve, learn from the people around you, and get to know the families of victims.

James Spann’s coverage of the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak

Every time there is a severe weather threat in Alabama, people ask James’ least favorite question- “Will it be like April 27, 2011?” That day was a “generational event” as he called it, and noted that there are not many days like that in your career. However, just because the state might not experience a massive outbreak as it did on that day, all it takes is one tornado. If there is one tornado in the whole state, and it hits your house, that day is your April 27. For James and his family, that day was March 25, 2021.

There were ten tornadoes across the state on March 25, 2021, one of which struck his home while he was live on air. Fortunately he and his wife have a severe weather plan in place, and she was in their safe place when it struck. Even more fortunately – their roof miraculously stayed on their house! This is very unusual with an EF3 tornado, and many homes in their neighborhood lost their second floors. He constantly reiterated how blessed they were, and though they had damage from trees falling on their home, they are fortunate to have insurance to cover the damage and let them have somewhere to stay while they rebuild. He worries more about the people who don’t have the money in place to repair their homes or anywhere to go while their homes are being rebuilt. Those are the people he wants to focus on when giving back after severe weather events.

There were five deaths on March 25th, and James says the most challenging thing about his job is getting the loss of life down to zero when there are tornadoes. His sole purpose in life is to mitigate loss of life during inclement weather. Looking back on March 25, he knows that the warning process worked really well; the death toll could have easily been 100. Residents of the state had a plan, they were ready and knew what to do, but we still need to look back at the five fatalities and see what happened.

We’ve come a long way though…thinking back ten years ago, 252 Alabamians (342 total across the country) died during the April 27, 2011 “Super Outbreak.” That was the day that they realized forecasting and physical science alone wasn’t enough – we NEED social scientists to take communication further. That is when they began taking an interdisciplinary approach to weather, and the results have paid off immensely. He praised the social scientists he worked with and the value they’ve added to the team over the years.

Preparedness

James’s passion for protecting people is evident – which is why he visits schools every day! He also went on to say that if he wasn’t doing what he’s doing, he’d love to be a third grade science teacher because he knows how to get to their level and communicate science for them. He believes that getting to kids while they’re young his huge, but he can’t talk to every child across the world…so he recently commissioned his wife and son (whom he credits with being much more creative than him) to write a children’s book, “Benny and Chipper: Prepared…Not Scared.” Ginger Zee, Chief Meteorologist for ABC News and one of James’ former interns, wrote the forward for the book, while James wrote a science contribution to the end. He wanted to write a book for kids who loved science and weather, but also a book that addressed fear by giving valuable information to overcome that fear and not scare them. Children, especially those who have lived through traumatic severe events, typically fear weather. This book, the first in a series, will address that through adventures with Benny (a bear) and Chipper (a dog). The next book should come out next spring and will cover tornadoes.

He also is a firm believer in reaching everyone in every demographic, and these days that means not relying on solely television broadcasts to get the forecast out. The whole world doesn’t tune in to the night time newscast anymore, so you have to access and utilize every digital and social platform there is…from Facebook to Snapchat to Tiktok. Though some might think it’s silly for an “older” person to be on these platforms, if he can reach someone there who would never watch them on TV, to let them know that a severe threat is imminent, then it’s 100% worth it to him. It’s imperative for meteorologists to understand that you are working with different types of people, different backgrounds, different socioeconomic groups and develop a way to reach all of them. Be sure you don’t miss any groups, and know where your weaknesses are so that you can address them.

Words for the Next Generation

James talked highly of the next generation, praising the younger and upcoming workforce as brilliant with outstanding work ethics. The future is really bright, James forecasts (pun intended). As he mentioned while discussing preparedness, the current broadcast model is becoming dated, but reinvention is coming and will continue to make our field better.

We also talked about his mentor, J.B. Elliott who worked for the National Weather Service (NWS) in Birmingham and took James under his wing. He let James come to the NWS office to watch him work, and most importantly, he was always an encourager. “Everyone needs an encourager in their life,” James added, “It’s even more important today than it was then.” After retiring from the NWS, J.B. joined James at his private weather company and worked there until he passed away seven years ago, though he remains in spirit. In fact, anytime there is a big severe weather event, he always thinks “What would J.B. do?” which is such a beautiful legacy for someone to have left behind. J.B.’s impact and time commitment to James instilled in James that he wanted to help younger people the way J.B. helped him.

James loves working with his interns, and says he looks for three key qualities when choosing anyone who works with him. First – he wants someone who has an impeccable work ethic and will work harder than he does. He maintains that he’s not really good at anything he does or better than anyone, but he works really hard and expects the same from those he works with. He also expects and wants you to LOVE weather and what you do…which makes it easy to work hard. Secondly, integrity – doing the right thing when no one is looking – is key. There is massive importance to integrity. And his final criteria is having a servants heart and looking after others more than yourself. Though he says he learned that late in life, he now realizes that we’re put here to help people.

“When you put the needs of others in front of your own, life gets really good. Look out for the needs of others before your own.”

James Spann

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