Category Archives: SKYWARN

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