I'm Jay Farlow. W9LW is my amateur (ham) radio call sign. I've been a ham since 1973. I've been a volunteer storm spotter for the National Weather Service SKYWARN program since the 1970s. I've also been a volunteer EMT and firefighter and member of a disaster medical assistance team. I advise the leadership team of Associated Churches Active in Disaster, a ministry of Associate Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County. Learn more about w9lw at www.qrz.com/db/w9lw.
A 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.
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.
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.
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.
The National Weather Service (NWS) is developing a web application that displays radar data and other information on a map. The Enhanced Data Display (EDD) can be a useful tool for SKYWARN storm spotters, especially those who do not have a radar program like Gibson Ridge’s GRLevel3.
EDD can display standard radar base reflectivity data (that common radar image that shows where the rain is and how heavy it is). It can also show velocity products, that show potential rotation in storms.
EDD can also geographically display a large number of NWS products, including convective outlooks, mesoscale discussions, watches and warnings. Once you display any of these products, you can zoom in to specific areas of interest. This can be useful, for example, if you want to learn whether your home is under a level 1 (marginal) or level 2 (slight) risk in a convective outlook, or whether your home is inside or outside a tornado warning polygon.
You can also optionally choose to add layers for features such as county lines, NWS county warning area lines, etc.
Although the application is officially still experimental (which means it might not always work as expected), it’s open to the public and available for you to try. I recommend playing around with it to see how it could help you with your situational awareness.
Blogger’s note: Below is an article I submitted to the “The Waynedale News,” a neighborhood newspaper in Fort Wayne, Indiana. If refers to the installation of an outdoor warning siren in a neighborhood that had been without one for years. The newspaper published the article July 7, 2017.
The new outdoor warning siren that’s coming to Waynedale brings with it some true risks that area residents might not have considered. Chief among those risks are over reliance and desensitization. Continue reading →
Six Fort Wayne amateur radio operators spent several hours May 23 assisting residents with their NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) receivers.
Tom Baker, N9TB; Jay Farlow, W9LW; Steve Haxby, N9MEL; Joseph Lawrence, K9RFZ; Steve Nardin, W9SAN; and Howard Pletcher, N9ADS worked alongside representatives of WANE TV, the Allen County Office of Homeland Security and the National Weather Service at the Walgreens store on Lower Huntington Road to configure NWR receivers.
Volunteers assured that the receivers’ specific area message encoding (SAME) and receive frequency settings were correct, so users would receive warnings that the NWS issues for their home counties.
WANE TV had promoted the three-hour event, which was duplicated at other locations in the TV station’s market area. The Office of Homeland Security estimates that 100 citizens were assisted.
As Joseph put it, the event “was an excellent example of cooperation between local weather personalities, NWS staff, DHS, and amateur radio operators to support our community. Good PR for amateur radio can go a long way in protecting ham radio bands from public utility spectrum grabs.”
Today is the fifth anniversary of a “derecho” thunderstorm that did widespread damage in northern Indiana and locations to the southeast.
“At the peak of the event,” writes the northern Indiana office of the National Weather Service, “the Fort Wayne International Airport observing equipment observed a peak wind gust of 91 mph.”
“Winds were as strong as an EF-1 tornado over a widespread area,” the NWS web page continues, “which resulted in immense damage along the storm’s entire path.” (Emphasis added by W9LW.)
One of the best lessons of that storm should be that we can have massive damage without a tornado. This was a particularly dangerous severe thunderstorm, but there’s no such thing as a “particularly dangerous situation” thunderstorm warning, so we need to pay attention to all severe thunderstorm warnings, even though such warnings are not uncommon.
The title of this post is one of the main points of a presentation I heard at the DuPage County (Ill.) Severe Weather Seminar March 11. College of DuPage meteorology professor Paul Sirvatka reminded spotters that the key to spotting a tornado in a classic supercell is knowing where the updraft is. As Dr. Sirvatka put it, a tornado is a “big sucky thing” that forms under an updraft.
Unfortunately, updrafts are not always easy to find. Depending on your location, important storm features can be obscured, making spotting difficult. And the closer you get to a storm, the more difficult it becomes to identify the important features.
A large part of Indiana has a level two (out of five) risk of severe weather today (April 20, 2017) and this evening, according to the National Weather Service (NWS) Storm Prediction Center. The primary threat today is damaging straight-line winds or gusts of 58 mph or greater, but an isolated tornado cannot be ruled out in much of northeastern and east-central Indiana.
That makes now an especially good time for Hoosiers (and everyone else who lives in an area that ever receives severe weather) to make sure they have good ways to know about any warnings their local NWS offices issue.
So, here’s my list of the best ways to get tornado, severe thunderstorm and flash flood warnings. Continue reading →