Social media for SKYWARN spotters

Facebook and Twitter logos

In previous articles, I’ve mentioned the National Weather Service’s interest in receiving storm reports via Internet social media channels, such as Twitter and Facebook. From the viewpoint of NWS meteorologists, these channels have significant advantages over ham radio. Chief among these: They don’t require the presence of a licensed ham radio operator at the weather forecast office (WFO). That’s important, because it’s becoming more and more difficult to find volunteer hams to staff the WFO’s station (WX9IWX) during severe weather. Another advantage in meteorologists’ eyes is sheer numbers. Many more people already report weather phenomena to their friends and followers via Twitter and Facebook than there are ham radio-equipped spotters.

An NWS service assessment of the historic June 29, 2012 derecho published in January discussed use of social media. Meteorologists at the Cleveland WFO told the assessment team that it received several reports via Twitter from people in and around its warning area during the event, often before receiving reports from its regular spotters. One of the official recommendations in the service assessment reads:

“NWS should expand the use of social media for reaching the public and receiving observations and damage reports during high-impact events. NWS should consider a virtual volunteer program to support social media operations similar to the SKYWARN program.”

The Northern Indiana WFO has already started monitoring Facebook and Twitter for such reports. What does this mean to spotters who are licensed ham radio operators? If a SKYWARN net is on the air, I recommend sharing your information on the net, even if you also submit it via social media and even if WX9IWX is not on the air. That way, other spotters listening to the net will immediately know what you saw. And even when WX9IWX is on the air, if you’ve taken a photo to go with your report, use Twitter or Facebook to send the report and photo to the WFO and then send your report on the net. Any time you give the net a report you’ve already sent via another means, say so on the air.

How to set up and use Twitter and Facebook accounts is beyond the scope of this article but such information is readily available on the Web. It’s worth noting, however, that in addition to sending tweets via Twitter’s website and via a myriad of smartphone apps, you can also configure Twitter to allow you to send a tweet from any cellular telephone that has text messaging (SMS) capability. In other words, sending a spotter report via Twitter while you’re away from home does not require a smartphone or any other kind of mobile Internet access.

Reporting via Twitter

To send a spotter report via Twitter, generate a tweet that includes your report and the “hash tag” #NWSIWX. The WFO and others constantly monitor Twitter for tweets that contain that hash tag. If there’s room in the 140-character tweet, indicate that you’re a trained spotter. Whenever possible, take a photo and include a link in your tweet (see the Web for instructions on how to do this). Note: If you monitor Twitter, you will see some people sending reports with @NWSIWX instead of #NWSIWX. You’ll also see the WFO reply to such tweets. Nonetheless, Warning Coordination Meteorologist Michael Lewis said the WFO prefers that spotters use the #NWSIWX hash tag in their reports. Also, if you need to send reports from a county that’s not in the coverage area of the Northern Indiana WFO, contact the appropriate WFO to learn what hash tag it uses and/or use that WFO’s Facebook page.

Reporting via Facebook

To send a report via Facebook, log into your Facebook account and go to the National Weather Service Northern Indiana Facebook page. Click on “Write Post” and enter your report. Indicate they you’re a trained spotter and as with tweets, include a photo if possible.

Whether you use Twitter or Facebook, meteorologists at the WFO will notice your report almost immediately. So will broadcasters, emergency managers, other spotters and members of the general public.

In fact, hams who are SKYWARN spotters can monitor these channels to improve their own situational awareness. More on that in a future article.