Making storm spotter reports while traveling

U.S. map showing county warning areas of each National Weather Service weather forecast office
County warning areas of each National Weather Service weather forecast office (NWS image).

During the Central Indiana Severe Weather Symposium, March 5, 2016 in Indianapolis, an attendee asked how spotters, particularly those who are hams, can report to appropriate National Weather Service (NWS) weather forecast offices (WFO) while traveling away from home.

There are several good answers to that question. It helps to know that each WFO has its own area of responsibility, which the NWS calls a county warning area (CWA). It is defined by a list of counties (or parishes) for which that WFO issues weather warnings. Generally speaking, every county in a given WFO’s CWA is closer to that WFO’s doppler radar station that to any other WFO’s radar. This is why CWAs often cross state lines.

If you want to make a spotter report while traveling, therefore, you need to know two things:

  1. Which WFO’s CWA you’re in.
  2. How to contact that WFO.

SpotterNetwork.org

SpotterNetwork.org's reporting page displays the ID and phone number of the appropriate NWS office to members who are logged in and using a location-reporting app.
SpotterNetwork.org’s reporting page displays the ID and phone number of the appropriate NWS office to members who are logged in and using a location-reporting app.

By far, the simplest way to accomplish both steps above is to register with SpotterNetwork.org and install compatible position-reporting software on a smartphone or similar GPS- and mobile- data-equipped mobile device.

I use WDT’s RadarScope app on my iPhone. According the the SpotterNetwork.org website, Android users have several additional choices, including ChaserLocation, PYKL3 Radar and Radar Alive!

In my case, RadarScope (when properly configured and activated) continually transmits my iPhone’s GPS coordinates to SpotterNetwork.org servers. If I need to make a report, I just log into my account on SpotterNetwork.org’s home page with any Web browser (including the one on my phone), and then select the “Submit Severe Report” link.

Because SpotterNetwork.org knows where I am, it displays at the top of the reporting page the three-letter identifier of the WFO whose CWA I’m in and the best telephone number through which to make a report to that WFO (in most cases, it’s the “bat phone” number that’s reserved for spotters). Then, I can call that number (the best choice for life-threatening situations, like a tornado) or enter my report into the SpotterNetwork.org website and let SpotterNetwork.org send it to the proper WFO electronically.

Weather.gov

The watch-warning-advisory map on the NWS home page allows viewers to find the NWS office for any location by clicking that location on the map.
The watch-warning-advisory map on the NWS home page allows viewers to find the NWS office for any location by clicking that location on the map.

You can determine the appropriate WFO for any location in the country by using the NWS home page, www.weather.gov. Just click anywhere on the U.S. map. Near the top of the Web page that appears, you’ll see a headline that indicates the name of the WFO in whose CWA you clicked. If you scroll to the bottom of that page, you’ll find a phone number for that WFO. Unfortunately, it’s the main office phone number, not the special spotter report number. Depending on the time of day and how the WFO set up its phone system, you might not be able to reach a WFO staff member on that number.

Once you get on the appropriate WFO’s website, however, you should be able to easily find a weather reporting Web form, the WFO’s Twitter handle or even a link to the WFO’s Facebook page, all of which provide alternatives to calling.

If you don’t have mobile Internet, you can use weather.gov before your trip to make your own list of the WFOs through whose CWAs your route will take you.

911

You can call 911 to report life-threatening weather. The phone system will automatically route your call to an appropriate public safety answering point (PSAP) for your location, where a staff member will know how to relay your report to the appropriate WFO.

Disadvantages of this method include:

  • During times of severe weather, PSAPs are often too busy taking incoming calls to relay any information to the NWS.
  • The PSAP call taker might not appreciate being told about one-inch-diameter hail, even though the WFO would want to know about it.

Amateur (ham) radio

Learning how to make spotter reports via ham radio while out of your normal area can be challenging. You’ll have to determine which frequency is used by hams in your current location. Even if you’re successful, you might not be able to reach the WFO or someone who can relay your report to the WFO.

In most communities, hams conduct weather-related communications on a repeater system.  Ways to learn what repeaters exist in any location include the American Radio Relay League’s (ARRL) printed “Repeater Directory,” the website and apps of the ARRL-endorsed www.rfinder.net and the independent RepeaterBook.com website.

Some listings in the ARRL directory and on repeaterbook.com indicate that a listed repeater is used for weather-related activities. When that indication is available, such repeaters are good places for ham-radio-equipped spotters to start. You might, however, need to try multiple repeaters within range to find one on which a SKYWARN net operates. It’s therefore a good idea to communicate with local hams as you enter an area, so that you’ll already know about local on-air SKYWARN practices before you need to call in a report. This is especially important, because the local SKYWARN net might not permit participation by outsiders.

Call your home WFO

As a last resort, you can always use the “bat phone” number for your home WFO. Be sure to tell the call taker early in the call that you’re outside their CWA and that you’re requesting them to relay your report to the appropriate WFO.

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