All posts by Jay Farlow

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.

NWS Announces Plans for Local SKYWARN Training


In early December, Michael Lewis, Warning Coordination Meteorologist, Northern Indiana Weather Forecast Office, National Weather Service (NWS), sent an email message outlining updated plans for SKYWARN spotter training in 2013.
Lewis confirmed that in 2013, NWS will not conduct in-person, face-to-face training.
“We had to weigh the options,” Lewis said, “conduct spotter trainings, or reserve travel for possible storm damage surveys, or other Disaster Response Services. In general, one storm damage survey consumes travel and personnel costs equivalent to approximately four spotter talks. We had to decide where to put our resources. We chose to reserve our budget for possible disaster response/recovery.”
The so-called “fiscal cliff” is the reason NWS had to make such a choice. At the time of this writing, Congress had not passed a bill to prevent the automatic austerity measures included in the Budget Control Act of 2011. Unless Congress does so, the federal government must cut spending on Jan. 1 by $200 billion, which means across-the-board cuts, including at NWS. This situation required our local NWS office to plan as if it won’t have enough money for both in-person spotter training and the other activities Lewis mentioned above.
The NWS office therefore plans to conduct spotter training at various sites around its area of responsibility via live, Internet presentations. Spotters will gather at such sites to view — as a group — presentations provided remotely from the NWS office. The current plans do not include opportunity for spotters to view the presentations elsewhere, e.g. their homes or offices.
Lewis said the program will represent a complete rewrite of presentations that have been used for in-person presentations of the past. NWS expects a 90 minute program, including a 15 minute break. “We are doing everything possible to make this a dynamic learning process for the attendees,” Lewis said.
NWS is coordinating with county emergency management agency directors to set up host sites at which spotters may gather to view the online presentations. At the time of this writing, NWS had not announced the specific sites. After all host sites have received their remote presentations. NWS plans to make a recorded presentation available for individual viewing.
Lewis said the new remotely led training will cover less meteorology and radar interpretation than previous in-person training has included. Instead, the new training will focus on the following:
  • Why to report
  • What to report
  • How to report (including telephone, ham radio, etc. and new tools like social media)
  • Where to obtain the reports of others (for situational awareness)
Because the online spotter training will not contain much meteorology, Lewis strongly recommended that all spotters take advantage of available online independent study training courses. “These courses are well-prepared and provide the student the opportunity to go back and review the material at their convenience,” Lewis said. He referred specifically to the following:
Lewis said spotters should complete the above independent study course before attending remotely-presented spotter training.
Lewis said NWS does not have any authority to prevent others from creating their own, local spotter training programs. “There are plenty of people willing to step up and present whatever they think is best,” he said. Lewis warned, however, “This will result in inconsistencies, and conflicting information, and likely result in confusion.”
Lewis said he hopes to have a “train the trainer” program in place for the 2014 spotter season and beyond. Such a program would train volunteers who are not NWS employees to provide NWS-authorized spotter training in their communities.
As I receive more information about NWS plans, I’ll keep you posted. In the interim, I recommend that you encourage any spotter or potential spotter you know to complete the above-referenced online, independent study course.

NWS SKYWARN Training Suspended, SKYWARN Operations Continue


The Northern Indiana office of the National Weather Service hosted a conference call with leaders of IMO SKYWARN Nov. 19. During the call, Warning Coordination Meteorologist Michael Lewis formally announced that the NWS has suspended plans for local NWS-led SKYWARN spotter training in 2013. Although the federal government’s fiscal year began October 1, Congress had not yet passed a budget for the fiscal year, leaving the NWS with no idea how much it can spend on the travel and overtime that spotter training requires. Lewis indicated that after Congress passes a 2013 budget, there is a possibility that the NWS will be able to conduct spotter training in 2013, but such training sessions would likely not occur before storm season begins.
Lewis said all SKYWARN operationswill continue without change. IMO SKYWARN nets on amateur radio will continue to function as they have in 2012 and the NWS will continue to receive spotter reports on the same toll-free telephone number it has used in the past.
Lewis emphasized that the NWS wants all SKYWARN spotters to receive the message that their services continue to be essential, despite the suspension of annual training.
Lewis said he hopes that spotters and potential spotters will take advantage of available online training modules. He specifically recommended the following resources:

Lewis noted that the COMET system will notify the local NWS office when spotters complete its training modules. Therefore, spotters who did not attend training in 2012 or 2011 can avoid being dropped from the rolls by taking the COMET training in 2013.
Lewis indicated that volunteers might conduct their own in-person spotter training sessions in 2013. The NWS will not, however, be able to provide any training materials to such volunteers. He recommended that volunteer trainers use the online training resources above (especially those provided by The COMET® Program) as the basis for their presentations.
Lewis also said that the local NWS office might explore the possibility of conducting live, online training sessions (webinar-style) from the office. But he indicated it was too early to know whether or when that might happen.
In other news from the conference call, the IMO SKYWARN leaders and Lewis briefly discussed advanced spotter training. IMO SKYWARN has sponsored advanced training every other year for several years and 2013 would normally be the year of the next event. Past events depended heavily on support from the NWS. Specifically, NWS travel budgets supported the participation of NWS meteorologists from outside our area as expert speakers. Lewis said NWS has forbidden all such travel in 2013. IMO SKYWARN has not yet decided whether it will try to host advanced training in 2013 without that NWS support.

Are Ham Radio SKYWARN Spotters Becoming Irrelevant?


Are ham radio SKYWARN spotters becoming irrelevant, the way that ubiquitous cell phones reduced the importance of repeater autopatches? Comments at a recent meeting hosted by the Northern Indiana National Weather Service could lead one to believe that answer is, “Perhaps.”
The Northern Indiana NWS weather forecast office conducted a workshop October 17 for its Integrated Warning Team (IWT). By NWS definition, an IWT includes the local NWS office, news media and emergency management community. The purpose of the workshop was to find ways to increase data sharing between the three components of the IWT. Representatives of each of the three IWT segments gave presentations on their needs. The comments of the NWS representatives were particularly interesting.
“The only way we really know what’s going on is when we get that ground truth report,” said an NWS presenter. Unfortunately, the NWS is not receiving enough timely reports from its trained spotters. An NWS representative expressed frustration at seeing significant radar data in an area where he knew trained spotters lived but getting no reports.
When reports don’t arrive via traditional means (like ham radio, or messages from emergency officials), the NWS has no choice but to search elsewhere for information. It has started searching on social media networks like Facebook and especially Twitter. It turns out that users of social media often write about the weather they see, because they believe their friends and followers are interested. Members of the IWT acknowledged that most such reports come from people without any weather training. But many social media users send their updates from camera-equipped smart phones and include photos with their reports.
“One picture of a funnel cloud is better than 10 reports from trained spotters,” an NWS representative said.
Does that mean ham radio operators should abandon SKYWARN nets? Perhaps not. But it might be wise to take steps to improve the value of our service. Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Education. By learning all we can about meteorology, we can assure that all our reports are valid and valuable.
  • Technology. By becoming familiar with and using other technologies to supplement ham radio (e.g. tweeting photos from smart phones), we can provide a more complete service while demonstrating our ability to stay on the “cutting edge.”
  • Procedures. By insisting on sounding as professional as possible when we communicate, we can build credibility among any IWT members who monitor or receive our reports.

In upcoming articles, I’ll share more ideas along these lines, especially ways to gain more education and use technology.

Keeping the Mic on its Hook


SKYWARN spotters who refrain from transmitting are very valuable. These are the well-trained operators who know the National Weather Service reporting criteria by heart. When they see nothing that meets those criteria, they keep their microphones on their hooks. A recently implemented change in IMO SKYWARN Quadrant Two procedures will recognize these helpful operators. When a SKYWARN quadrant operation ends, the active net control operator (NCO) now takes check-ins from all stations who participated in the operation, including those who had nothing to report. The net control team thanks Ron Busch, WB9AA, for suggesting the change.
The team also made a slight change in the suggested call-in procedure for use during standby mode. To refresh your memory, during standby mode, an NCO is on frequency but the repeater is available for normal use. The NCO team has noticed that many stations that want the NCO’s attention during standby mode simply transmit their own call signs once. So the NCO team has made that the suggested procedure. Now, when an operator transmits his or her call sign alone during standby mode, the NCO on duty will assume the call is meant for the NCO and respond accordingly.
An updated version of the IMO SKYWARN Quadrant Two operations manual that contains these changes is available here.

Storm Spotters as Advocates

If you’re a trained SKYWARN storm spotter, who in your family knows more than you about severe weather? How about in your neighborhood, place of employment or place of worship?

Unlike most of your family, friends and coworkers, you know that a tornado watch means that conditions are favorable for the development of tornadoes and a tornado warning means it’s time to take cover. You know that flooding kills more people in northern Indiana than do tornadoes. You know that most people cannot rely on tornado sirens to warn them of danger.

Chances are, in most (if not all) of your circles, you are the severe weather expert.

I’d like to propose, therefore, that you have more responsibility than observing and reporting severe weather. You should also be a weather safety advocate.

I wrote in a previous post that many residents of Joplin, Missouri initially ignored warnings of the tornado that would devastate part of their city. Compared to years past, the National Weather Service is able to issue more specific warnings earlier than ever before. But for too many people, these advances are wasted, because they don’t know how to react to the information. That’s where you come in.

Be an advocate. Advise your friends and family to buy weather alert radios. Help program the radios. Help them learn how to interpret and react to severe weather information. Make sure they know that a tornado warning means “take shelter,” not “go outdoors to look.” Teach them they’re not necessarily in the clear just because 10 minutes have passed without a tornado.

We can be the best possible weather spotters but if the people we’re trying to protect don’t know what to do, what’s the point?

Respect for Storm Chaser Reed Timmer

Storm Chaser Reed Timmer
Some of my readers know that I serve in a leadership position for IMO SKYWARN, the ham radio SKYWARN organization in northern Indiana. As a SKYWARN storm spotter, I’ve enjoyed watching the Discovery Channel’s reality show, “Storm Chasers,” even through there are considerable differences between storm chasing and storm spotting.  When I heard that one of the stars of that show, meteorologist and storm chaser Reed Timmer (Twitter: @reedtimmerTVN, Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/ReedTimmerTVNWeb: www.tornadovideos.net) would speak here in Fort Wayne, Indiana I was certainly interested but I admit that I was skeptical about the value of attending. Ivy Tech Community College brought Reed in as the inaugural speaker in its new Inspire Academy lecture series.
I’ve worked in television and I know how editing can create an inaccurate perception of people and events. So I knew that even though Reed sometimes comes off as a thrill seeker on the TV show, he might be very different in real life. Still, I expected that his presentation would be more about TV and less about meteorology, to appeal to a general audience, so I didn’t expect much.
Boy, was I wrong and boy, am I glad I attended Reed’s talk.
He gave an excellent presentation that focused on the science he does when he’s chasing. Yes, he does real science; he doesn’t just pay it lip service. I’ve attended several symposiums to further my education beyond what the NWS provides in basic spotter training but I still learned some things from Reed’s talk. His discussion of suction vortices in tornadoes was particularly interesting. So was his data plot that showed wind speeds during a tornado intercept dropping to 8 MPH and then increasing to 138 MPH (or was it knots … I don’t remember) in a second or less.
I was also impressed that Reed did his best to fight warning desensitization (about which I’ve written previously). He also encouraged people to have alarm-style NOAA weather radios in their homes. And this really impressed me: he encouraged audience members to attend NWS spotter training classes.
After the talk, a throng hung out for a chance to meet and speak personally with Reed. I didn’t have time to await a chance to do that, or I would have told him personally how impressed I was. Maybe he’ll see this blog post. Let me just say that I now have great respect for Reed Timmer. He’s much more impressive in person than on TV. If you ever have a chance to see him speak, don’t miss it.

“Warning Desensitization” Makes SKYWARN Spotters even more Important

As I wrote earlier, I attended a severe weather symposium March 2, the same day that southern Indiana got slammed by tornadoes. In this post, I’ll share a little more about that conference.
It was the 16th Annual Sever Weather Symposium, organized and hosted by The Ohio State University’s Meteorology Club. This was not storm spotter training or even advanced spotter training. But any spotter who is interested in learning more about severe weather would do well to attend future instances of this symposium.
I was particularly interested in a presentation by Gary Garnet, warning coordination meteorologist, National Weather Service Cleveland, Ohio weather forecast office. Garnet spoke on “Findings from the Joplin Tornado Assessment.” His presentation about the devastating tornado strike in Joplin, Missouri on May 22, 2011 did not focus on meteorology. Rather, he reported on a study he helped to conduct to assess “issues ranging from internal NWS warning operations to dissemination strategies to public warning response.” Garnet and other team members had conducted nearly 100 interviews in Joplin with tornado survivors, business people, media representatives as well as emergency management, NWS and local government officials. The team’s full report is available on the Web.

Tornado warnings issued before and during the Joplin tornado. Notice how some of the warning polygons overlap. Graphic courtesy NWS.
Garnet reported that due to warning desensitization, most Joplin residents did not take immediate action when they learned of the NWS tornado warning. Instead, most sought additional information, including going outside to look for the storm, eating away at the 21 minutes between the warning and the beginning of EF-4 tornado damage.

Garnet said “non-routine triggers” are what eventually prompted citizens to take action to protect themselves. For example, Joplin officials broke from their normal practice and sounded tornado sirens more than once. Broadcasters began imploring listeners to “take cover now,” something listeners were not accustomed to hearing.
In some ways, the weather service’s relatively new practice of basing warning areas on storm movement, rather than county lines, adds to the problem. Making warning areas more specific is a good idea but NOAA weather radio still alerts entire counties and many (if not most) tornado siren systems lack the ability to selectively activate sirens. In addition, subsequent warning polygons often overlap each other, confusing citizens.
So, what does all this have to do with ham radio? To me, it reinforces the importance of live reports from trained spotters. The earlier a spotter makes a report, the earlier NWS can issue a warning and the more time citizens have to decide whether they are at risk. Also, when a ham sees a tornado and reports it via radio, a lot of people hear it: other hams, NWS meteorologists, broadcasters and members of the general public who listen to spotter nets on their scanners. Such reports can provide the non-routine triggers that get people to take cover.

Some Information Regarding March 2 Indiana Tornadoes

While tornadoes were slamming southern Indiana March 2, I was in a severe weather symposium in Columbus, Ohio. How ironic is that? Everyone in the room was using laptops, tablets and smart phones to keep eyes on the situation. One of the meteorologist presenters volunteered to give us all a meteorological briefing on the situation during lunch. It was fascinating. I’ll write more about the symposium and some interesting stuff I learned in another post.

After I got home, some Fort Wayne hams were talking on VHF and UHF about what kinds of communication support they be asked to provide as a result of the disaster. Based on a SITREP-style news release that the Indiana Department of Homeland Security (IDHS) put out just before midnight, it appears the answer is, “not much:” “Communications: Only limited communication issues are being reported at this time.”

IDHS is posting updates regarding the disaster on their Facebook page. You don’t have to be a Facebook member to see the updates. Go to:
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Indiana-Department-of-Homeland-Security/221837910246

Here’s a shortened link for tweets, etc:
http://on.fb.me/dSmo5R

Learned Something New: Book Traffic to Multiple Stations

I’ve been handling traffic since the 1970s but I still learn new things about this aspect of ham radio. While listening to other traffic handlers on a net, I often ask myself, “Is that the right way to do that?” Then I go online to the NTS Methods and Practices Guidelines (MPG). That document provides information about nearly every aspect of traffic handling, in excruciating detail!

Just the other day, I heard one of our fellow traffic handlers check in with “book” traffic for three disparate locations in the section. In my experience, we “book” messages when multiple messages that share common parts (e.g. the same text) will be sent to a single station. It turns out my experience was incorrect.

I went to the MPG and learned something! Chapter Two (section 2.3.4.12) provides a procedure for sending a book of three messages to three different stations on voice. It goes something like this, where W3XZ is sending a book to W3XA, W3XB and W3XC:

W3XZ: “W3XA, ready to copy?”
W3XA: “Ready.”
W3XZ: “XB?”
W3XB: “Ready.”
W3XZ: “XC?”
W3XC: “Ready.”
W3XZ: “Book of three, routine, hotel x-ray golf, whiskey bravo five november kilo delta, two one, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, February 29. Break.” (Pauses for any fill requests and if receiving stations are silent, continues.)

(Note that I’ve written this as you’d say it on the radio, not as it would be written on a radiogram form. Also note that we say, “Book of (number of messages in the book)” where we’d normally say a message number. The receiving stations don’t write that part down. They start writing with the “R” for “routine.”)

W3XZ: “Message relay stations are needed, initial x-ray. Hope you are able to, I spell, tango oscar, help, initial x-ray. Find a local net to, I spell, tango oscar, learn how. Figures seven three. Break. Pat, amateur call whiskey bravo five november kilo delta. Break” (Pauses again for fills, continues if receiving stations are silent.)

(Note that the word “break” does not mean “over,” as it sometimes does in QSOs. In message sending, “break” simply means that one part of a message is finished and the next is about to begin. We pause after some “breaks” (but not all) to allow receiving stations to ask for fills. If receiving stations need no fills, their silence tells the sending station to continue. Note that there is no pause after the “break” before the signature. We assume receiving stations can wait a few more seconds to request fills. Also, note that after the signature, we do not say “end” as we would during a single radiogram. This is just one part of a book, so we say “break” instead. Also note that “to” is spelled phonetically to distinguish it from “two” and “too.”)

W3XZ: “W3XA, number fifty five, Jim Smith,” (continues address block for message number two)
W3XZ: “Break. W3XA?”

(This “break” indicates the end of the address block and therefore the end of the stuff that W3XA must copy. W3XZ gives W3XA’s call sign, inflecting the question mark, to inquire whether W3XA copied the message.)

W3XA: “Roger, W3XA.”

Now, W3XA is finished and has legally signed off with his call sign. If this message was being passed on a frequency other than the net frequency, W3XA then returns to the net frequency. Next, W3XZ continues as above, sending the unique parts of message number 56 (the second message) to W3XB and message number 57 (the third and final message) to W3XC. The only difference is in what W3XZ says at the end of the third message’s address block. Instead of, “Break. W3XC?” W3XZ would say, “End book, no more.” He says “end book” instead of “break” because there’s nothing more to send to anyone. He doesn’t need to say “W3XC?” because W3XC is the only station remaining and knows that after he hears “End book no more” it’s his turn to say “Roger, W3XC.” After W3XZ hears that final “roger,” he signs off with his call sign.

This procedure looks pretty complicated but if you look through it and try it a couple of times, you’ll get the hang of it. And it can save a lot of time on a voice net!

Winlink 2000: An NTS Gray Area?

Recently, I’ve been having mixed thoughts about NTS stations passing traffic via the Winlink 2000 (WL2K) radio email system.
WL2K is a nifty system that allows people to get Internet email via a radio connection. It’s especially useful to operators at sea. They or anyone else can send and receive email with a computer, a sound card interface and a ham rig. As long as they can connect to any of many gateway stations worldwide, they can send email and retrieve email that’s waiting for them.
The system does not store email at the gateway station. It stores it via the Internet on multiple, identical, redundant Common Message Servers (CMS). In short, when a WL2K user connects via radio to a gateway station, that gateway station connects via the Internet to one of the CMS to exchange email.
So, what does this have to do with NTS? Well, some NTS officials have proposed a change to NTS Methods and Practice Guidelines that would officially incorporate WL2K into NTS. But that’s not what I’m writing about here.
What’s on my mind is what’s happening in the meantime. Some NTS operators are using WL2K radio email to complete traffic assignments they receive on phone (voice) nets. For example, it’s not unusual for a station on a region net to check in, list 10 messages for one of the sections and then tell the section representative that the traffic will move via radio email.
Is this a problem? I’m not really sure. Maybe not. But here’s the part I find interesting:
The history of NTS has been “radio all the way.” For example, if I check into a section net and pass a message for California to a region net representative, that station is expected to retransmit the message on the region net via radio to an area net representative. NTS would frown on him telephoning it to the area net representative or sending it to the area net rep. via Internet email. He’s supposed to move it on the air.
But if my region representative sends the message to the area net representative via WL2K, he is necessarily sending it over the Internet. This is true even if he uses his radio to connect to a WL2K gateway station. It’s true even if the area net rep. later connects via radio to the same WL2K gateway station to pick it up. The message will still have traveled via the Internet to and from a WL2K CMS.
Now, imagine this scenario: W9AAA tells N9BBB on the phone region net that he’s sending him traffic via radio email. W9AAA then connects via radio to WL2K gateway K9RMS and sends my California-bound message. When N9BBB tries to connect to K9RMS later, propagation has changed and K9RMS can’t hear him. So, he connects instead to WL2K gateway N6RMS and picks up the message. The message route would look like this:
W9AAA—(radio link)—K9RMS—(Internet link)—CMS—(Internet link)—N6RMS—(radio link)—N9BBB
From a practical viewpoint, I wonder if the above route is really all that different from K9RMS putting my message in a regular Internet email to N6RMS. Or for that matter, is it really different from K9RMS calling N6RMS on the telephone with my message?
And the area gets even grayer. Referring again to the example above, W9AAA doesn’t even have to use his radio to put the message on WL2K. The same software with which stations connect via radio to WL2K can also connect directly to a WL2K CMS via the Internet. So it’s possible for all those NTS stations using WL2K to move their phone net traffic to each other without radios! Of course, we assume they use their radios and not the available direct Internet links. But to a purist like me (I admit it!) the whole thing seems, well, gray.
Don’t read what I’m not writing! I’m mostly thinking out loud here and I do not condemn the use of WL2K. As I said at the beginning, it’s a nifty system and using WL2K radio links to get Internet email the “last mile” into and out of a disaster area is an especially excellent idea.
I just wonder sometimes whether using it routinely in connection with our phone nets is in keeping with the spirit of NTS. I don’t know. I just wonder. What do you think? Click the “comments” link below and add your thoughts.