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

What’s in a number?

A radiogram’s number is the first thing we send. If a receiving station has indicated, “ready to copy,” the next word out of our mouths should be “number.” Not “please copy,” not “message follows,” just “number.” It’s what experienced traffic handlers expect to hear. 
Next, we say the number itself, one digit at a time. So, if the message number is 12, say “number one two,” not “number twelve.” If the number is 131, we say “number one three one,” not “number one thirty-one” and not “number one hundred and thirty-one.” Finally, we say “zero,” not “oh” in numbers like 101.
(This is the second in a series of short traffic-handling columns I submitted to the Kosciusko County ARES newsletter.)

Allen County SKYWARN Spotters Receive Training

About 35 people attended SKYWARN spotter training Feb. 26 at the Allen County Public Library. Here are some highlights:
SKYWARN Spotters receive training at the Allen County Public Library, February 26, 2013
Warning Coordination Meteorologist Michael Lewis reminded spotters of the importance of their reports. He pointed out that studies have shown that members of the general public pay more attention to weather warnings when they include eyewitness reports. In other words, if a tornado warning says a spotter has seen a tornado on the ground, it’ll get a lot more response from the public than a possible tornado indicated by radar.
Reporting Methods
Lewis covered the preferred and less preferred reporting methods.
Twitter. Lewis said Twitter is not only the fastest way to get a report in front of meteorologists’ eyes; it’s also supported by software that automates the process of creating a local storm report (LSR). That means news media and emergency managers see it faster. To send a report via Twitter, include the “hash tag” #nwsiwx. If possible, attach a photo to the tweet.
Facebook. This is the second choice of the NWS. Lewis said it’s a bit slower than Twitter and requires manual retyping to create an LSR. “But it’s still pretty darn fast,” Lewis said. Another advantage of Facebook is that it archives photos and videos, making it easier for meteorologists to look at them after the event. To 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. If possible, include a photo. NWS likes this web-based spotter organization (, in part because it requires spotters to complete the organization’s own online independent study training before it accepts reports from them. Also, conducts quality assurance on reports and suspends people who make inappropriate reports. Michael says is fast but depends on the speed of the weather forecast office’s (WFO) Web connection, which can vary.
Amateur Radio. Lewis described amateur radio as “super-fast” but also described a significant issue: Volunteer operators are not always available to staff the amateur station at the WFO, WX9IWX. Also, meteorologists do not monitor the radio traffic; they wait for the volunteer operator to write down a report and hand it to them. Lewis urged amateur radio spotters to use one of the other methods whenever WX9IWX is not on the air.
CoCoRaHS. The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network ( is a grassroots volunteer network of backyard weather observers who measure precipitation and report it via the Web. The network can also receive reports of severe weather. NWS has access to these reports and considers the speed of this reporting method to be comparable to amateur radio.
E-spotter. The NWS operates this web-based spotter reporting system ( but not for much longer. Lewis said 2013 is probably the last year that E-spotter will be available. It’s running on a server that uses the outdated operating system MS-DOS!
Telephone. Lewis gave the audience the toll-free spotter hotline number (888-668-3344) but said the phone is far from an optimal way to make a report. In fact, he said spotters should consider the phone to be a last resort. He said the phone line can get swamped with calls and there can be a considerable delay getting out an LSR.
Email. NWS does not really consider email a reporting method, especially for urgent reports like tornadoes. Lewis said that accessing the email account ( is a burden to meteorologists, so the delay can be significant. It’s such a problem that Lewis advised spotters who send email to also call the WFO to alert it to look for the message.
So what does the IMO SKYWARN quadrant director recommend? Get a Twitter account and use it but also send every report on ham radio, so other spotters will hear it immediately. Twitter lets you send spotter reports from any cell phone that supports text messaging. And if you have a smartphone, you can shoot a photo and use a Twitter app to share the photo with the WFO. Of course, if you’re at an Internet-connected computer, you can use it to send a report via Twitter.
But remember, spotters who monitor our radio nets depend on hearing each others’ reports. So if you use another method to report, put it on the radio too. Just make sure the net control station knows you already sent it via another method.
Reporting Criteria
Lewis presented the following new set of reporting criteria for 2013:
·         Hail, regardless of size. Lewis advised, however, that redundant hail reports (same size in a nearby location) are not particularly helpful. If you’re uncertain whether your report is redundant, send it anyway.
·         Measured wind speed greater than 50 mph. Lewis cautioned spotters to make sure they’ve calibrated their equipment. And he suggested referring to the Beaufort wind scale to see if the wind is doing damage consistent with the measured wind speed. If not, be suspicious of your anemometer.
·         Wind damage·          
o   Report an estimatedwind speed based on the Beaufort wind scale
o   Report the size (diameter) of broken branches and fallen trees
o   Report the number of trees damaged
o   Report Impacts(power outages, impassable roads, specific structure damage, etc.)
·         Funnel Clouds or Tornados. Remember that rotationmust be present with either feature. Also, do not report a tornado if you can’t see debris being lifted (for any reason … it might be a tornado but if you can’t see the debris because of a tree line, call it a funnel cloud).
·         Flooding.Don’t drive or wade into the water to measure its depth!
Those are highlights of this year’s training session. Feel free to contact w9lw@arrl.netwith any questions or post them in the comment section below.

NTS traffic handlers can be so picky!

They want you to send everything in just the right order and just the right way. Why? Adhering to standard message transmission procedures helps ensure message accuracy, because the receiving station always knows what to expect, when and how. That’s why the NTS has very specific directions about exactly what you should say when you transmit a radiogram. That includes things like when to say “break” (and when not to), how to transmit an acronym, etc.

This is the first of a series of short columns on traffic handling that I’ve submitted to the weekly Kosciusko County, Ind. ARES newsletter. Kosciusko County Emergency Coordinator AB9ZA invited me to provide the information and I figured I could kill two birds with one stone and post the same article here!

Pay Attention to Special Weather Statements

In the December issue of Allen County HamNews, I hinted at a possible change in reporting criteria for SKYWARN spotters. During a conference call with leaders of IMO SKYWARN, NWS Warning Coordination Meteorologist Michael Lewis discussed a goal for spotter reports. Lewis wants reports to be based more on weather impact than on measurements such as wind speed or hail size. For example, if the weather does damage or causes injury, Lewis wants to know about it, even if conditions do not meet traditional reporting criteria.

In addition, Lewis wants net control operators and spotters to pay attention to a text product that the NWS issues when meteorologists are concerned about conditions but don’t have enough data to issue a warning. That text product is called a Special Weather Statement.
During periods of severe and/or near-severe weather, Lewis wants spotters to report conditions in areas covered by Special Weather Statements, even if the conditions don’t meet traditional reporting criteria. In other words, spotters should interpret a Special Weather Statement to mean that the NWS needs their help deciding whether to issue a warning for the area described in the statement; even if that means reporting that nothing is happening there.
When the NWS issues a Special Weather Statement, spotters and others can find it on the NWS website. Just look at the forecast page for your area. If a Special Weather Statement is in effect, a link to it will appear in the “Hazardous Weather Conditions” area below the forecast graphics and above the textual “7-Day Forecast.” You can also go to (and bookmark) this Web page: That page lists every Special Weather Statement issued by the Northern Indiana NWS office, for any county in its coverage area. As I write this, the page contains Special Weather Statements related to dense fog. There are also several services that will send email or text messages when Special Weather Statements are issued, so you don’t have to keep checking the Web to see if a new one has come out.
Finally, a few months ago I wrote an article that was intentionally a little provocative. It dealt with NWS interest in receiving spotter reports via Internet social media and whether such channels would make ham radio reports obsolete.
Derek Augsburger, AB9SO is ARES emergency coordinator for Adams County and leads ham radio SKYWARN operations there. He responded to my article with an email message in which he described Adams County spotters who became hams after they’d been avid spotters for a while. These folks had been using cell phones to communicate and maintain situational awareness, but of course, they could each talk to only one other spotter at a time (or perhaps two other spotters with a 3-way call). After these spotters became hams, “they realized that an entire group was in communications at once and information was passed quickly to everyone at the same time,” Derek wrote. “Basically it became a weather spotting ‘party’ and not just a bunch of single people doing their own thing,” he continued. “They realized it was a coordinated effort and ham radio made that possible.”
Derek makes a good point about the value of ham radio to serious storm spotters. Nonetheless, NWS is continuing its efforts to involve more non-hams in the warning decision process, via reports those folks send on media like Twitter and Facebook. Look for more on that in another article.

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: 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.