Wait, what? Feds say warning us about military attacks isn’t their job.

Tweet sent by Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency after it sent a false missile attack alert via the Emergency Alert System Jan. 13, 2018.
Tweet sent by Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency after it sent a false missile attack alert via the Emergency Alert System Jan. 13, 2018.

Well, this is interesting and a bit surprising. NPR reported today that federal officials say it’s not their role to warn the public about missiles.

If the feds are the ones who can detect an attack, aren’t the feds the ones who should warn us about it?

Ever since I was a kid in the 1960s, I expected to hear directly from the federal government if the United States came under attack.

In the early 1950s, the federal government established the CONELRAD system, in part to enable the feds to continuously broadcast enemy attack information to the public using radio or TV stations. I remember that one of the first electronic kits I ever built was a CONELRAD detector, which would turn on a light if a radio station to which it was tuned went off the air. It wasn’t intended to be practical, but began to teach me about electronics and emergency communications.

The Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) replaced CONELRAD in 1953. Its purpose was similar to CONELRAD’s; “to provide the President of the United States with an expeditious method of communicating with the American public in the event of war, threat of war, or grave national crisis.” This meant the federal government was still acknowledging a responsibility to communicate such information directly to the public, vs. expecting states to do it.

I don’t know when the federal government handed off to states the task of alerting the public to military attacks (if you do, leave a comment). Perhaps it happened when the EBS morphed into our current Emergency Alert System (EAS) in 1997.  It seems ridiculous to me, however, because the ability to detect such attacks lies with the Department of Defense (a federal agency). If the feds are the ones who can detect an attack, aren’t the feds the ones who should warn us about it?

Earlier this month, U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) introduced the Authenticating Local Emergencies and Real Threats (ALERT) Act (S.2385), legislation that would give the federal government the sole responsibility of alerting the public of a missile threat.  If you agree that military attack warnings should again come from the feds, drop a line to your U.S. senator and ask him or her to support  S.2385.


Education opportunities for storm spotters

Alabama broadcast meteorologist and WeatherBrains podcast host James Spann speaks at the 2017 DuPage County Advanced Severe Weather Seminar. Spann is scheduled to speak in March, 2018 at the Central Indiana Severe Weather Seminar in Indianapolis.
Alabama broadcast meteorologist and WeatherBrains podcast host James Spann speaks at the 2017 DuPage County Advanced Severe Weather Seminar near Chicago. Spann is scheduled to speak in March, 2018 at the Central Indiana Severe Weather Seminar in Indianapolis.

Note: This article appears in the February, 2018 issue of Allen County HamNews, a newsletter for the amateur radio operators of Fort Wayne and Allen County, Indiana. Some of the information might still be of value, however, to weather enthusiasts within driving distance of Indianapolis, Chicago or Columbus, Ohio.

It’s time again for a reminder about training for volunteer SKYWARN storm spotters (and those who would like to become spotters). As usual, the northern Indiana office of the National Weather Service (NWS) will provide a two-hour, in-person training session in Fort Wayne. This year’s event is scheduled for 7 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 20, at the Public Safety Academy, 7602 Patriot Crossing (behind the Wal-Mart and Menards stores on U.S. 27 south of Tillman Road). Check-in begins at 6:30 p.m. Readers outside the Fort Wayne area should check with their local NWS offices for SKYWARN training sessions near them.

The NWS strongly requests all participants to register in advance via this website: http://bit.ly/2BC4fsi. To be honest, registration will be accepted at the door, but it helps the NWS a lot if you register in advance. Anyone who is unable to register via the web site may register via telephone by calling the Allen County Office of Homeland Security at 260-449-4671. There is no charge.

Reports from trained spotters, however, are much more valuable, because trained spotters are less likely to be fooled by scary-looking but benign clouds and are more likely to understand what the NWS really needs to know about (and what it doesn’t).

The NWS also strongly encourages all participants to complete a free, online independent study course before the in-person training session. This course contains valuable information that meteorologists won’t have time to cover during the in-person training. The online course can be found at http://bit.ly/1Ift9f0.

I’m often asked whether the NWS requires training and if so, how often. The honest answer is that the NWS will accept a storm report from anyone, whether or not that person has taken the training. Reports from trained spotters, however, are much more valuable, because trained spotters are less likely to be fooled by scary-looking but benign clouds and are more likely to understand what the NWS really needs to know about (and what it doesn’t).

That’s why the NWS recommends that spotters take the class at least once every three years. Many spotters attend every year, because it helps remind them of important information and because the NWS occasionally updates the class with new information.

Other education opportunities

For storm spotters who are interested in deeper dives into severe meteorology and related issues, several seminars in and near Indiana provide this opportunity.


The Indianapolis NWS office and the Indiana chapter of the American Meteorology Society host the biennial Central Indiana Severe Weather Symposium this year. Speakers include Alabama television meteorologist James Span, who also hosts the well-known weather podcast WeatherBrains and fellow WeatherBrain Dr. Kim Klockow-McClain, the podcast’s social science expert and a research scientist at the University of Oklahoma Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies. The all-day event takes place Saturday, March 17 on the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (a change from previous symposiums at Butler University). Learn more at http://bit.ly/2EmuvtZ.


The annual DuPage County Advanced Severe Weather Seminar takes place in one of Chicago’s western suburbs March 10. Specifically, the all-day event happens on the campus of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. That’s about a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Fort Wayne, but I’ve always found the learning worth the drive. Learn more at http://bit.ly/2rKB9aM.

Columbus, Ohio

The Ohio State University Meteorology Club hosts its annual, day-long Severe Weather Symposium on the OSU campus Friday, March 9. I’ve also attended this event several times and found it worth the drive to Columbus. Find more information at http://bit.ly/2rPoC5O.

Registration opens for College of DuPage storm-chasing tours

College of Dupage storm chasing tour participants view a developing storm. Photo credit: College of DuPage Meteorology
College of Dupage storm chasing tour participants view a developing storm. Photo credit: College of DuPage Meteorology

Registration has opened to all for this year’s storm-chasing tours operated by the College of Dupage (COD), which is headquartered in the western suburbs of Chicago.

What makes these tours unusual and of interest to any and all weather enthusiasts, is that you don’t have to be a COD student to join a trip. (Technically, if you’re not already enrolled, you pay a $20 application fee and COD makes you an official student for the trip, but everyone pays the tuition rates they’d pay if they were permanent residents of COD’s district).

I’m certain that I’d learn more about severe meteorology, which would help me be a more effective storm spotter.

The total cost for someone who isn’t already a student, therefore, is $1,290. That fee includes a minimum of eight nights of hotel stay;
transportation costs while on the trip; teaching and instruction of severe weather analysis, spotting techniques, and other meteorological phenomena; and three hours of college credit.

That price seems to compare favorably to those of some of the commercial tornado tour companies out there. Plus, everyone participating on a COD trip can expect to learn about thunderstorms, tornadoes and storm chasing from a respected instructor, such as Prof. Paul Sirvatka. COD has been taking students out storm chasing since 1989, enabling it to offer, as its web site reads, “more experience than any of the major storm chasing tour operators that we are aware of.”

I’ve never taken one of these trips. In fact, I’m not all that interested in storm chasing, although I’ve been a SKYWARN® storm spotter for more than three decades. I can see, however, some advantages to a trip like this for someone like me. I’m certain that I’d learn more about severe meteorology, which would help me be a more effective storm spotter. In addition, the experience of watching storms produce tornadoes would help me better understand what to look for when I’m at home making reports to the National Weather Service.

To learn more about COD’s storm chasing trips, visit the program’s dedicated website at http://weather.cod.edu/chasing/.

Learn to identify and report severe weather to NWS

SKYWARN storm spotter training banner from NWS Northern Indiana flyer

The National Weather Service Northern Indiana weather forecast office has scheduled its annual SKYWARN storm spotter training class for Feb. 20 at the Public Safety Academy of Northeast Indiana.

If you’re already a volunteer storm spotter, this class will provide a valuable refresher on what to look for what to report and what’s not really useful to warning meteorologists.

The class is also great for anyone who has any interest in severe weather, even if you don’t plan to be a regular volunteer storm spotter in the NWS SKYWARN program.

Although amateur (ham) radio operators have been an integral part of the SKYWARN program since its inception, you need not be a ham to become a SKYWARN storm spotter. There are now many other ways to send storm reports to your local NWS office. Ham radio capabilities remain helpful, however, for improved situational awareness and as a communication tool when other means fail.

As you can read in the flyer below, the class starts at 7 p.m. at the Academy, 7602 Patriot Crossing, Fort Wayne. That’s the big building behind the Walmart and Menards stores on U.S. 27 south of Tillman Road, on the south edge of Fort Wayne. Doors open for check-in at 6:30 p.m.

The class is free but pre-registration is expected. To register, simply go to http://alleninspotter.eventzilla.net/web/event?eventid=2138917591. If you know someone who wants to attend who has no internet access, have them register by phone by calling 260-449-4671.

There are no prerequisites for this class but the NWS recommends completion of free, online training before the class. You can find that training at https://www.meted.ucar.edu/training_course.php?id=23.

I’ve taken the class every year for more years than I can remember and I always get something out of it. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment here or on the National Weather Service Northern Indiana Facebook page.

If you don’t live near Fort Wayne, US National Weather Service Northern Indiana plans to offer the same clase at multiple locations in northern Indiana, northwestern Ohio and southern Lower Michigan. You can find a complete list of the office’s classes here. If you live outside the area covered by the National Weather Service Northern Indiana office, contact the NWS office nearest you to learn when and where it will conduct storm spotter classes.

Flyer announcing SKYWARN storm spotter training in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Feb.  20,2018

Why do some storm chasers call 911 vs NWS?

After a small tornado outbreak in Indiana and neighboring states yesterday, I’ve been looking at some tornado videos published by storm chasers. On at least two of them, one can hear on the audio track references to calling 911 to report the tornado. On one, you can hear a chaser instructing a public safety answering point (PSAP) operator to activate warning sirens.

Here’s my question: Why would storm chasers — who one would expect to be familiar with the National Weather Service (NWS) warning system — call 911 instead of the NWS?

Why would storm chasers — who one would expect to be familiar with the National Weather Service (NWS) warning system — call 911 instead of the NWS?

Sure, a call to the local PSAP might lead to activation of outdoor warning sirens, which might alert some nearby residents — especially ones who are outdoors — that something is going on. But it won’t lead to activation of NOAA weather radios, wireless emergency alerts on cellular phones, or alerts on broadcast channels until and unless the NWS knows about the tornado and issues an official tornado warning.

You might think that a call to 911 will get a report to the NWS. In reality, that’s not necessarily true. I’ve attended several meetings of an NWS integrated warning team, where PSAP representatives have repeatedly said that during periods of severe weather, they’re so busy answering phones, that they don’t have time to  call NWS. And an NWS warning coordination meteorologist has personally told me that his office yearns to know what citizens are reporting to 911, but can’t get the information.

Granted, calling 911 is easy, especially for chasers whose anxiety levels have reached a near panic stage as they stare down tornadoes. After all, calling 911 when something bad happens is almost a reflex. But a single call to the NWS would get life-saving information to a whole lot more people who are in the path of the storm.

There is a challenge, though, especially for chasers who are always moving from county to county (and for some, state to state) as they try to get in position to see tornadoes. They must always know exactly where they are and they must know which NWS office to call. Adjacent counties are not always served by the same NWS office.

The first part (knowing exactly where you are) is challenging enough, when you’re driving through unfamiliar territory. I’ve heard numerous spotters and chasers, who, while trying to make a report to NWS offices, were unable to say exactly where they were, much less where the funnel cloud or tornado was. Knowing what county your are in and knowing what NWS office serves that county is even more difficult. In truth, any NWS office will accept a tornado report from outside its area and get that information immediately to the correct office. So calling the “wrong” NWS office is probably still better than calling 911, when it comes to warning the most people.

But there’s an even better solution. Members of Spotter Network, Inc. can use a combination of location-reporting software on their smartphones and the Spotter Network website to learn immediately the phone number of the NWS office that covers whatever location they’re in at the moment.

University demonstrates questionable understanding of tornado warnings http://w9lw.farlowconsulting.com/2017/11/05/university-demonstrates-questionable-understanding-of-tornado-warnings/
The Spotter Network website can tell members where they are, which NWS office to call, and the phone number for that office.

By using the location-beaconing software, staying logged into the Spotter Network website and bookmarking the “Submit Severe Report” page above, chasers and spotters can learn the best NWS number to call with a couple touches of their smartphones. The result will be warning a lot more people a lot sooner than calling 911 can.

University demonstrates questionable understanding of tornado warnings

It’s really important that anyone who is in charge of the safety of an institution — a university campus, for example — maintain an updated, working knowledge of how weather warnings work. Tweets sent today by Indiana University today could lead one to believe that its campus safety staff could benefit from some education in that area.

At 1:19 p.m. EST, the Indianapolis office of the National Weather Service (NWS) issued a tornado warning that included a portion of southern Monroe County, Indiana.  The warning came with a polygon that clearly showed that the IU campus was not included.

Polygon associated with Nov. 5 tornado warning near Bloomington, IN. The National Weather Service issued the warning only for the area inside the red polygon.

In addition, the text of the warning indicated that “a severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado was located 12 miles northwest of Bedford, moving east at 30 mph.” In other words, the storm was not moving toward Bloomington or the IU campus (which is why NWS meteorologists drew the polygon as they did).

Six minutes after the NWS issued the warning, IU sent a tweet at 1:25 regarding what it called a “tornado warning for Bloomington.”

Cody Kirkpatrick, an IU lecturer in atmospheric science, attempted to clarify IU’s tweet:

The IU Twitter account replied:

Dr. Kirkpatrick knew what he was talking about. Those sending tweets on behalf of IU demonstrated ignorance of the National Weather Service’s “storm-based warning” system. When the NWS implemented that system a decade ago, it replaced the county-wide warnings to which IU’s tweet refers, with warnings based on polygons that indicate where the actual risk is.

In subsequent tweets, Dr. Kirkpatrick attempted to point that out, as well as the fact that IU’s original tweet was ambiguous. IU’s response:

But is warning people who are not at risk really better than warning only people who are truly at risk? Is doing so truly “safe,” or does it exacerbate existing challenges with getting people to respond appropriately to warnings?

The people at any institution like IU, who are in charge of disseminating public safety information, would do well to take full advantage of the informational resources that exist among their own faculty. Doing so could lead to better weather safety communications in the future.

An unexpected honor

2017 Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador of Excellence graphic

I was surprised and honored that this blog was chosen by the northern Indiana office of the National Weather  as a 2017 Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador of Excellence.

If your organization is interested in helping the National Weather Service spread important weather safety messages, check out the WRN Ambassador program.

Still no way to get messages to Puerto Rico, even as new hams arrive

Ham radio operator wearing Amateur Radio Emergency Service safety vestA group of 50 volunteer amateur (ham) radio operators from the U.S. mainland are on their way to Puerto Rico, to provide much-needed communications at Red Cross shelters there. But even after they arrive and set up, there still will probably be no way to get messages to the island.

The mission of the ham radio operators that the American Radio Relay League (ARRL, the national association for amateur radio) is deploying will be to send information from the island, according to an email message from ARRL staff member Steve Ewald. Specifically, they’ll send information about the welfare of survivors, so worried family members on the mainland will finally know their loved ones are OK.

But no one will contact those families directly.

As the survivor data reaches the mainland, other volunteers will enter it into the Red Cross “Safe and Well” database, where family members around the world will be able to access it via the web.

So, as I wrote in an earlier blog post, the only resource for worried family members remains checking the Safe and Well web site. If a Puerto Rico resident is not listed, family members can only check again the next day, and the next. After newly deployed hams get in place and start sending survivor data off the island, the number of survivors listed on that website should grow quickly.

Advice for worried families after hurricanes and other disasters

NASA satellite image of Hurricane Maria over Puerto Rico
NASA satellite image of Hurricane Maria over Puerto Rico

I can’t imagine what it must be like to have a loved one on an island that’s struck by a major hurricane. The worry must be terrible.

Because I’m an amateur (ham) radio operator, I have received requests from strangers who are desperate for help getting welfare inquiries through to places like Dominica and Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria struck.

Based on my years of experience in emergency response (including disaster response) and emergency communications. I have some words for such people that I hope will be helpful.

First, it’s important to remember that absence of communication does not mean that your loved one has been harmed. In most cases it means only that the disaster’s survivors temporarily have no way to tell you that they’re OK. So, as hard as it might be, maintain hope.

In the absence of other means of communication, one of the few things a distant family can do is search the Red Cross’ “Safe and Well” website.

Second, in the absence of other means of communication, one of the few things a distant family can do is search the Red Cross’ “Safe and Well” website. For a number of reasons, that’s an imperfect answer, but it’s often the only option. The site does not allow families to send inquiries into affected areas. It does, however, allow them to see if a survivor has added himself or herself to the “safe and well” list. Of course, survivors can do so only if a.) they have access to the internet and b.) they know about the website.

In many cases, ham radio operators like myself are present in disaster-struck areas. It’s logical to believe that a ham outside the disaster area can help people learn if their loved ones are safe. There are some important things, however, that such people might not realize.

Any hams who lived through the disaster (e.g. hurricane landfall) must first deal with the immediate needs of their own households before they can be of help to others. This includes obtaining necessary medical care, shelter, food, etc. Depending on the intensity of the disaster, this could take considerable time.

Likewise, a hurricane can destroy the external antennas a ham needs to communicate with the outside world. Assuming the ham has the necessary materials, he or she can build a temporary antenna, but this can also take time.

Ham radio equipment requires electricity. As I write this, the entire island of Puerto Rico is without commercial power. Except for solar or wind-powered systems, the only electricity available is coming from privately owned generators (typically fueled by gasoline). Any ham who lives on the island and doesn’t have such a power source is off the air (or will be, after batteries die). And hams who have generators can operate their radios only as long as the generators’ fuel lasts. Finding fuel could be a challenge, with roadways blocked by trees and gasoline stations lacking power for pumps.

Now, let’s assume for a moment that there are hams on Puerto Rico whose homes and antennas survived the storm, whose families need no assistance and who have plenty of emergency electricity. It still might not be possible for these hams to receive inquiries from worried families on the U.S. mainland. Why? I’m sorry to say, that they might well have more important things to do with their radios.

In such disasters, ham radio operators are often busy for a time passing emergency and other urgent messages. An ambulance is needed here. A rescue team is needed there. Supplies are needed at that shelter. Such messages can completely occupy local hams for days after a disaster. They have no choice but to reject incoming welfare inquiries until all the emergency and urgent communication is handled.

Next, ham radio channels become busy with outgoing welfare messages. That’s what I was hearing on the radio today. Hams I heard in Puerto Rico were completely tied up sending messages off the island for their neighbors. It was one message after another, without a break for inquiries to flow to the island.

Eventually, the local hams will catch up and be able to accept incoming messages. Just as eventually, telephone and internet service will become available to survivors.

In the interim, difficult as it is, worried families need patience and hope.

Reports of Maria’s devastation on Dominica arrive via ham radio

Check out this recording of amateur (ham) radio operator Frans van Santbrink (J69DS) in St. Lucia relaying reports from fellow hams on the island of Dominica as the eye of Hurricane Maria strikes.

This VOIP Hurricane net is a hybrid, radio/internet service for which I volunteer as a net control station (i.e. conference call moderator). It’s main mission is to relay such reports to the U.S. National Hurricane Center to aid in the development of forecasts and warnings.


Severe weather, ham radio & anything else I feel like writing about

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