Category Archives: SKYWARN

Education opportunities for storm spotters

Alabama broadcast meteorologist and WeatherBrains podcast host James Spann speaks at the 2017 DuPage County Advanced Severe Weather Seminar. Spann is scheduled to speak in March, 2018 at the Central Indiana Severe Weather Seminar in Indianapolis.
Alabama broadcast meteorologist and WeatherBrains podcast host James Spann speaks at the 2017 DuPage County Advanced Severe Weather Seminar near Chicago. Spann is scheduled to speak in March, 2018 at the Central Indiana Severe Weather Seminar in Indianapolis.

Note: This article appears in the February, 2018 issue of Allen County HamNews, a newsletter for the amateur radio operators of Fort Wayne and Allen County, Indiana. Some of the information might still be of value, however, to weather enthusiasts within driving distance of Indianapolis, Chicago or Columbus, Ohio.

It’s time again for a reminder about training for volunteer SKYWARN storm spotters (and those who would like to become spotters). As usual, the northern Indiana office of the National Weather Service (NWS) will provide a two-hour, in-person training session in Fort Wayne. This year’s event is scheduled for 7 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 20, at the Public Safety Academy, 7602 Patriot Crossing (behind the Wal-Mart and Menards stores on U.S. 27 south of Tillman Road). Check-in begins at 6:30 p.m. Readers outside the Fort Wayne area should check with their local NWS offices for SKYWARN training sessions near them.

The NWS strongly requests all participants to register in advance via this website: http://bit.ly/2BC4fsi. To be honest, registration will be accepted at the door, but it helps the NWS a lot if you register in advance. Anyone who is unable to register via the web site may register via telephone by calling the Allen County Office of Homeland Security at 260-449-4671. There is no charge.

Reports from trained spotters, however, are much more valuable, because trained spotters are less likely to be fooled by scary-looking but benign clouds and are more likely to understand what the NWS really needs to know about (and what it doesn’t).

The NWS also strongly encourages all participants to complete a free, online independent study course before the in-person training session. This course contains valuable information that meteorologists won’t have time to cover during the in-person training. The online course can be found at http://bit.ly/1Ift9f0.

I’m often asked whether the NWS requires training and if so, how often. The honest answer is that the NWS will accept a storm report from anyone, whether or not that person has taken the training. Reports from trained spotters, however, are much more valuable, because trained spotters are less likely to be fooled by scary-looking but benign clouds and are more likely to understand what the NWS really needs to know about (and what it doesn’t).

That’s why the NWS recommends that spotters take the class at least once every three years. Many spotters attend every year, because it helps remind them of important information and because the NWS occasionally updates the class with new information.

Other education opportunities

For storm spotters who are interested in deeper dives into severe meteorology and related issues, several seminars in and near Indiana provide this opportunity.

Indianapolis

The Indianapolis NWS office and the Indiana chapter of the American Meteorology Society host the biennial Central Indiana Severe Weather Symposium this year. Speakers include Alabama television meteorologist James Span, who also hosts the well-known weather podcast WeatherBrains and fellow WeatherBrain Dr. Kim Klockow-McClain, the podcast’s social science expert and a research scientist at the University of Oklahoma Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies. The all-day event takes place Saturday, March 17 on the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (a change from previous symposiums at Butler University). Learn more at http://bit.ly/2EmuvtZ.

Chicago-area

The annual DuPage County Advanced Severe Weather Seminar takes place in one of Chicago’s western suburbs March 10. Specifically, the all-day event happens on the campus of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. That’s about a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Fort Wayne, but I’ve always found the learning worth the drive. Learn more at http://bit.ly/2rKB9aM.

Columbus, Ohio

The Ohio State University Meteorology Club hosts its annual, day-long Severe Weather Symposium on the OSU campus Friday, March 9. I’ve also attended this event several times and found it worth the drive to Columbus. Find more information at http://bit.ly/2rPoC5O.

Registration opens for College of DuPage storm-chasing tours

College of Dupage storm chasing tour participants view a developing storm. Photo credit: College of DuPage Meteorology
College of Dupage storm chasing tour participants view a developing storm. Photo credit: College of DuPage Meteorology

Registration has opened to all for this year’s storm-chasing tours operated by the College of Dupage (COD), which is headquartered in the western suburbs of Chicago.

What makes these tours unusual and of interest to any and all weather enthusiasts, is that you don’t have to be a COD student to join a trip. (Technically, if you’re not already enrolled, you pay a $20 application fee and COD makes you an official student for the trip, but everyone pays the tuition rates they’d pay if they were permanent residents of COD’s district).

I’m certain that I’d learn more about severe meteorology, which would help me be a more effective storm spotter.

The total cost for someone who isn’t already a student, therefore, is $1,290. That fee includes a minimum of eight nights of hotel stay;
transportation costs while on the trip; teaching and instruction of severe weather analysis, spotting techniques, and other meteorological phenomena; and three hours of college credit.

That price seems to compare favorably to those of some of the commercial tornado tour companies out there. Plus, everyone participating on a COD trip can expect to learn about thunderstorms, tornadoes and storm chasing from a respected instructor, such as Prof. Paul Sirvatka. COD has been taking students out storm chasing since 1989, enabling it to offer, as its web site reads, “more experience than any of the major storm chasing tour operators that we are aware of.”

I’ve never taken one of these trips. In fact, I’m not all that interested in storm chasing, although I’ve been a SKYWARN® storm spotter for more than three decades. I can see, however, some advantages to a trip like this for someone like me. I’m certain that I’d learn more about severe meteorology, which would help me be a more effective storm spotter. In addition, the experience of watching storms produce tornadoes would help me better understand what to look for when I’m at home making reports to the National Weather Service.

To learn more about COD’s storm chasing trips, visit the program’s dedicated website at http://weather.cod.edu/chasing/.

Learn to identify and report severe weather to NWS

SKYWARN storm spotter training banner from NWS Northern Indiana flyer

The National Weather Service Northern Indiana weather forecast office has scheduled its annual SKYWARN storm spotter training class for Feb. 20 at the Public Safety Academy of Northeast Indiana.

If you’re already a volunteer storm spotter, this class will provide a valuable refresher on what to look for what to report and what’s not really useful to warning meteorologists.

The class is also great for anyone who has any interest in severe weather, even if you don’t plan to be a regular volunteer storm spotter in the NWS SKYWARN program.

Although amateur (ham) radio operators have been an integral part of the SKYWARN program since its inception, you need not be a ham to become a SKYWARN storm spotter. There are now many other ways to send storm reports to your local NWS office. Ham radio capabilities remain helpful, however, for improved situational awareness and as a communication tool when other means fail.

As you can read in the flyer below, the class starts at 7 p.m. at the Academy, 7602 Patriot Crossing, Fort Wayne. That’s the big building behind the Walmart and Menards stores on U.S. 27 south of Tillman Road, on the south edge of Fort Wayne. Doors open for check-in at 6:30 p.m.

The class is free but pre-registration is expected. To register, simply go to http://alleninspotter.eventzilla.net/web/event?eventid=2138917591. If you know someone who wants to attend who has no internet access, have them register by phone by calling 260-449-4671.

There are no prerequisites for this class but the NWS recommends completion of free, online training before the class. You can find that training at https://www.meted.ucar.edu/training_course.php?id=23.

I’ve taken the class every year for more years than I can remember and I always get something out of it. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment here or on the National Weather Service Northern Indiana Facebook page.

If you don’t live near Fort Wayne, US National Weather Service Northern Indiana plans to offer the same clase at multiple locations in northern Indiana, northwestern Ohio and southern Lower Michigan. You can find a complete list of the office’s classes here. If you live outside the area covered by the National Weather Service Northern Indiana office, contact the NWS office nearest you to learn when and where it will conduct storm spotter classes.

Flyer announcing SKYWARN storm spotter training in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Feb.  20,2018

Why do some storm chasers call 911 vs NWS?

After a small tornado outbreak in Indiana and neighboring states yesterday, I’ve been looking at some tornado videos published by storm chasers. On at least two of them, one can hear on the audio track references to calling 911 to report the tornado. On one, you can hear a chaser instructing a public safety answering point (PSAP) operator to activate warning sirens.

Here’s my question: Why would storm chasers — who one would expect to be familiar with the National Weather Service (NWS) warning system — call 911 instead of the NWS?

Why would storm chasers — who one would expect to be familiar with the National Weather Service (NWS) warning system — call 911 instead of the NWS?

Sure, a call to the local PSAP might lead to activation of outdoor warning sirens, which might alert some nearby residents — especially ones who are outdoors — that something is going on. But it won’t lead to activation of NOAA weather radios, wireless emergency alerts on cellular phones, or alerts on broadcast channels until and unless the NWS knows about the tornado and issues an official tornado warning.

You might think that a call to 911 will get a report to the NWS. In reality, that’s not necessarily true. I’ve attended several meetings of an NWS integrated warning team, where PSAP representatives have repeatedly said that during periods of severe weather, they’re so busy answering phones, that they don’t have time to  call NWS. And an NWS warning coordination meteorologist has personally told me that his office yearns to know what citizens are reporting to 911, but can’t get the information.

Granted, calling 911 is easy, especially for chasers whose anxiety levels have reached a near panic stage as they stare down tornadoes. After all, calling 911 when something bad happens is almost a reflex. But a single call to the NWS would get life-saving information to a whole lot more people who are in the path of the storm.

There is a challenge, though, especially for chasers who are always moving from county to county (and for some, state to state) as they try to get in position to see tornadoes. They must always know exactly where they are and they must know which NWS office to call. Adjacent counties are not always served by the same NWS office.

The first part (knowing exactly where you are) is challenging enough, when you’re driving through unfamiliar territory. I’ve heard numerous spotters and chasers, who, while trying to make a report to NWS offices, were unable to say exactly where they were, much less where the funnel cloud or tornado was. Knowing what county your are in and knowing what NWS office serves that county is even more difficult. In truth, any NWS office will accept a tornado report from outside its area and get that information immediately to the correct office. So calling the “wrong” NWS office is probably still better than calling 911, when it comes to warning the most people.

But there’s an even better solution. Members of Spotter Network, Inc. can use a combination of location-reporting software on their smartphones and the Spotter Network website to learn immediately the phone number of the NWS office that covers whatever location they’re in at the moment.

University demonstrates questionable understanding of tornado warnings http://w9lw.farlowconsulting.com/2017/11/05/university-demonstrates-questionable-understanding-of-tornado-warnings/
The Spotter Network website can tell members where they are, which NWS office to call, and the phone number for that office.

By using the location-beaconing software, staying logged into the Spotter Network website and bookmarking the “Submit Severe Report” page above, chasers and spotters can learn the best NWS number to call with a couple touches of their smartphones. The result will be warning a lot more people a lot sooner than calling 911 can.

University demonstrates questionable understanding of tornado warnings

It’s really important that anyone who is in charge of the safety of an institution — a university campus, for example — maintain an updated, working knowledge of how weather warnings work. Tweets sent today by Indiana University today could lead one to believe that its campus safety staff could benefit from some education in that area.

At 1:19 p.m. EST, the Indianapolis office of the National Weather Service (NWS) issued a tornado warning that included a portion of southern Monroe County, Indiana.  The warning came with a polygon that clearly showed that the IU campus was not included.

Polygon associated with Nov. 5 tornado warning near Bloomington, IN. The National Weather Service issued the warning only for the area inside the red polygon.

In addition, the text of the warning indicated that “a severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado was located 12 miles northwest of Bedford, moving east at 30 mph.” In other words, the storm was not moving toward Bloomington or the IU campus (which is why NWS meteorologists drew the polygon as they did).

Six minutes after the NWS issued the warning, IU sent a tweet at 1:25 regarding what it called a “tornado warning for Bloomington.”

Cody Kirkpatrick, an IU lecturer in atmospheric science, attempted to clarify IU’s tweet:

The IU Twitter account replied:

Dr. Kirkpatrick knew what he was talking about. Those sending tweets on behalf of IU demonstrated ignorance of the National Weather Service’s “storm-based warning” system. When the NWS implemented that system a decade ago, it replaced the county-wide warnings to which IU’s tweet refers, with warnings based on polygons that indicate where the actual risk is.

In subsequent tweets, Dr. Kirkpatrick attempted to point that out, as well as the fact that IU’s original tweet was ambiguous. IU’s response:

But is warning people who are not at risk really better than warning only people who are truly at risk? Is doing so truly “safe,” or does it exacerbate existing challenges with getting people to respond appropriately to warnings?

The people at any institution like IU, who are in charge of disseminating public safety information, would do well to take full advantage of the informational resources that exist among their own faculty. Doing so could lead to better weather safety communications in the future.

An unexpected honor

2017 Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador of Excellence graphic

I was surprised and honored that this blog was chosen by the northern Indiana office of the National Weather  as a 2017 Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador of Excellence.

If your organization is interested in helping the National Weather Service spread important weather safety messages, check out the WRN Ambassador program.

Experimental NWS Enhanced Data Display is useful tool for storm spotters

Example image from National Weather Service experimental Enhanced Data DisplayThe 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.

You can access EDD at http://preview.weather.gov/edd/. Because the application has so many available features, I highly recommend accessing the online user guide as well, at http://preview.weather.gov/edd/resource/edd/usersguide/EDD_Guide.pdf

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.

What residents need to know about their new outdoor warning siren

Tornado siren. Outdoor warning sirens are not intended to be heard indoors.

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

Fort Wayne hams volunteer to program weather radios

Amatuer (ham) radio operator Steve Haxby, N9MEL, helps a citizen program a weather alert radio
Amateur (ham) radio operator Steve Haxby, N9MEL, helps a citizen program a weather alert radio

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.”

Remembering a lesson on a derecho anniversary

An NWS graphic showing the path of the 2012 derecho

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.

See an extensive discussion of the 2012 derecho on the NWS northern Indiana website: https://www.weather.gov/iwx/20120629_derecho