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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
National Weather Service Press Release
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE March 14, 2016
INDIANA SEVERE WEATHER PREPAREDNESS WEEK, MARCH 20-26
******** STATEWIDE TORNADO DRILLS MARCH 22nd ********
Syracuse, IN – So far, 2016 severe weather does not compare with the tragic March 2012 tornadoes to strike southern Indiana. Is that a sign for fewer tornadoes this year? “Indiana has tornadoes every year,” said Michael Lewis, Warning Coordination Meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Northern Indiana. “But events like the deadly tornado of March 2012 point to the importance of being ready and responsive in the face of increasing hazardous weather events. Being resilient is part of the vision of the National Weather Service (NWS) as we grow toward becoming a Weather Ready Nation,” added Lewis.
The National Weather Service, in cooperation with the Indiana State Department of Homeland Security, Indiana State Police, Indiana Department of Education, the Indiana Broadcasters Association, the American Red Cross, and the amateur radio community, will conduct a Severe Weather Preparedness campaign March 20-26, 2016.
The 38th annual statewide test tornado drills will be conducted on Tuesday March 22 at 10:15 am and 7:35 pm EDT. Wednesday March 23 is the make-up drill day if severe weather postpones Tuesday’s drill. The drill will be initiated by TEST Tornado Warnings issued by NWS offices serving Indiana, triggering programmed electronic devices and activation of many outdoor warning sirens.
“Every family, every school, and every business should take time now to review or create a weather safety action plan,” said John Erickson, Public Information Officer of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. “Having and practicing a plan increases your chances of surviving the storm,” added Erickson.
For further information, you may refer to: www.weather.gov/ind also:
The 2016 Central Indiana Severe Weather Symposium, hosted by the Indianapolis office of the National Weather Service (NWS) and the Indiana chapter of the American Meteorological Society, provided a full day of interesting presentations. Below are a few highlights.
Squall lines made cooler
John Kwiatkowski of the NWS Indianapolis office provided a presentation on Quasi-Linear Convective Systems (QLCS). Early in his talk, Kwiatkowski explained that this is the same type of storm that meteorologist formally called a “squall line.” Kwiatkowski joked that the new name sounds much cooler and that using it will impress members of the opposite sex.
QLCSs are much more common in Indiana than are supercell thunderstorms. Yet, as Kwiatkowski explained, spotting a QLCS in the field can be more dangerous than watching a discrete supercell out in the plains. Part of a QLCS can produce very damaging straight-line winds without appearing any different to a field observer than any other part of the storm. It can also produce essentially invisible, rain-wrapped tornadoes which, while small and brief, can easily overturn a spotter’s car. Kwiatkowski advised staying home and reporting damage after the storm passes.
It’ll never happen to me (and if it does, I can handle it)
Dr. Laura Myers, a research scientist at the University of Alabama’s Center for Advanced Public Safety, provided a presentation titled “Weather Psychology of the Public: Integration of Social Science Research Results in Products and Practice.” She pointed out a variety of issues regarding how (and whether) people respond to weather warnings.
Myers said that a significant challenge of the weather enterprise is to make people understand that the benefits of safe behavior outweigh the costs and inconvenience.
Among the many discoveries she presented were some that will likely surprise weather enthusiasts:
Most people either don’t believe severe weather will ever affect them (it will always happen to someone else), or they believe that they are uniquely able to handle it.
Not everyone has a single, good warning modality, but people should have more than two.
Upon first learning of a weather alert, people often waste time seeking secondary confirmation, sometimes leaving insufficient time to take adequate shelter.
Most people don’t know what county they are in, even if they live there.
The tone, seriousness and message of broadcast meteorologists can make a difference in how people respond to threats.
Words like “emergency” in weather communications prompt more action but must be used sparingly.
During the 2012 derecho, severe thunderstorm warnings did not lead people to understand how dangerous the storm was. Many told surveyors that they would have behaved differently, had they known what the storm would do.
Storm spotters, chasers and other weather enthusiasts are in a unique position to help change how people respond to severe weather threats. As I’ve written before (see “Storm spotters as advocates“), we are often the trusted weather experts in our families and social circles. We can take advantage of that position to help those people understand how to stay safe.
Mobile home! Duck!
Well-known storm chaser Jeff Piotrowski discussed how he chased the 2013 El Reno tornado, the widest tornado in recorded history. His presentation included a great deal of compelling video of the storm.
At one point during the chase, a mobile home flew over Piotrowski’s car close enough to knock off a roof-mounted camera and antenna. Piotrowski saw it coming just in time to tell his wife to duck.
Piotrowski told the crowd that second-by-second situational awareness — including looking at the sky, not just a radar — is the only reason he survived the tornado. He said that during a chase, he never shuts off his car’s engine. And he reminded the audience that debris can travel four miles from tornado.
A peek behind the curtain
NWS Meteorologists Amanda Lee and Marc Dahmer provided a behind-the-scenes look at how the their Indianapolis office works during severe weather, complete with entertaining video shot in the forecast office.
They showed how the NWS WarnGen software creates warnings based on choices the warning meteorologist makes.
They also showed how the general public can access data from post-event damage assessments, sometimes within minutes of data entry in the field. The public-view version of the NWS Damage Assessment Toolkit is at https://apps.dat.noaa.gov/StormDamage/DamageViewer/. It requires Adobe Flash, which makes it inaccessible on iOS devices.
Building a Weather-Ready Nation
Dave Tucek, warning coordination meteorologist for the Indianapolis NWS office, provided an introduction the the agency’s “Weather-Ready Nation” (WRN) initiative. His talk included information on severe weather climatology and the value of organizations becoming WRN Ambassadors. Although the Ambassador designation is not available to individuals, Tucek pointed out that “We all have a part in spreading the weather-ready message.”
No green screen
Chris Wright of WTTV TV-4, Indianapolis, spoke about his career as a weather broadcaster. Interesting tidbits from his presentation included:
His station uses no green screen. Instead of chroma key, his weather graphics appear on a bank of nine video monitors.
During severe weather break-ins, it’s not unusual for a superior to tell him to keep talking. Wright told the crowd that if they see a weather break-in that lasts for more than 30 seconds, it wasn’t the weather person’s decision.
News anchors often don’t watch the weather segment of a newscast. That’s why the weather person recaps the forecast as part of his hand off back to the anchors.
Social media has significantly increased the workload in TV weather departments. Wright said that keeping up with Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. sometimes requires having two people per shift.
At colleges, students aren’t always the biggest emergency management challenge
Carlos Garcia, emergency manager for the Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis campus, talked about how the campus prepares for severe weather.
He said federal law requires universities to warn their communities of threats in a timely manner. He pointed out that college students are adults, who need to accept responsibility for their decisions in emergency situations. But he also indicated that students aren’t necessarily the biggest challenge with regard to appropriate response to notifications. That’s one reason the campus invested in software for all campus computers that can automatically display alerts. The software will even interrupt a professor’s PowerPoint presentation, displaying a notification to everyone in the classroom of the situation.
During the Central Indiana Severe Weather Symposium, March 5, 2016 in Indianapolis, an attendee asked how spotters, particularly those who are hams, can report to appropriate National Weather Service (NWS) weather forecast offices (WFO) while traveling away from home.
There are several good answers to that question. It helps to know that each WFO has its own area of responsibility, which the NWS calls a county warning area (CWA). It is defined by a list of counties (or parishes) for which that WFO issues weather warnings. Generally speaking, every county in a given WFO’s CWA is closer to that WFO’s doppler radar station that to any other WFO’s radar. This is why CWAs often cross state lines.
If you want to make a spotter report while traveling, therefore, you need to know two things:
Which WFO’s CWA you’re in.
How to contact that WFO.
By far, the simplest way to accomplish both steps above is to register with SpotterNetwork.org and install compatible position-reporting software on a smartphone or similar GPS- and mobile- data-equipped mobile device.
In my case, RadarScope (when properly configured and activated) continually transmits my iPhone’s GPS coordinates to SpotterNetwork.org servers. If I need to make a report, I just log into my account on SpotterNetwork.org’s home page with any Web browser (including the one on my phone), and then select the “Submit Severe Report” link.
Because SpotterNetwork.org knows where I am, it displays at the top of the reporting page the three-letter identifier of the WFO whose CWA I’m in and the best telephone number through which to make a report to that WFO (in most cases, it’s the “bat phone” number that’s reserved for spotters). Then, I can call that number (the best choice for life-threatening situations, like a tornado) or enter my report into the SpotterNetwork.org website and let SpotterNetwork.org send it to the proper WFO electronically.
You can determine the appropriate WFO for any location in the country by using the NWS home page, www.weather.gov. Just click anywhere on the U.S. map. Near the top of the Web page that appears, you’ll see a headline that indicates the name of the WFO in whose CWA you clicked. If you scroll to the bottom of that page, you’ll find a phone number for that WFO. Unfortunately, it’s the main office phone number, not the special spotter report number. Depending on the time of day and how the WFO set up its phone system, you might not be able to reach a WFO staff member on that number.
Once you get on the appropriate WFO’s website, however, you should be able to easily find a weather reporting Web form, the WFO’s Twitter handle or even a link to the WFO’s Facebook page, all of which provide alternatives to calling.
If you don’t have mobile Internet, you can use weather.gov before your trip to make your own list of the WFOs through whose CWAs your route will take you.
You can call 911 to report life-threatening weather. The phone system will automatically route your call to an appropriate public safety answering point (PSAP) for your location, where a staff member will know how to relay your report to the appropriate WFO.
Disadvantages of this method include:
During times of severe weather, PSAPs are often too busy taking incoming calls to relay any information to the NWS.
The PSAP call taker might not appreciate being told about one-inch-diameter hail, even though the WFO would want to know about it.
Amateur (ham) radio
Learning how to make spotter reports via ham radio while out of your normal area can be challenging. You’ll have to determine which frequency is used by hams in your current location. Even if you’re successful, you might not be able to reach the WFO or someone who can relay your report to the WFO.
Some listings in the ARRL directory and on repeaterbook.com indicate that a listed repeater is used for weather-related activities. When that indication is available, such repeaters are good places for ham-radio-equipped spotters to start. You might, however, need to try multiple repeaters within range to find one on which a SKYWARN net operates. It’s therefore a good idea to communicate with local hams as you enter an area, so that you’ll already know about local on-air SKYWARN practices before you need to call in a report. This is especially important, because the local SKYWARN net might not permit participation by outsiders.
Call your home WFO
As a last resort, you can always use the “bat phone” number for your home WFO. Be sure to tell the call taker early in the call that you’re outside their CWA and that you’re requesting them to relay your report to the appropriate WFO.
The warning coordination meteorologist of the Norman, Oklahoma NWS office did a very interesting presentation at a national storm chaser convention earlier this year. Rick Smith spoke about what goes on at his office during severe weather events and how chasers and spotters can be of greatest assistance. While some of the information was specific to his local office and does not apply to the northern Indiana office, it was nonetheless a fascinating presentation. You can watch it on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1CNFSkcagw or on the embedded video below.
Should a Facebook page run by amateur storm chasers promote itself as the best source for weather information? I can’t help but wonder how many (if any) naïve Facebook users foolishly rely on such pages for time-critical safety information, in lieu of the National Weather Service (NWS).
Recently, a Facebook page distributed the graphic above. I’ve blurred out identifying information, because who it was doesn’t matter to the point of this article. But the headline, “The #1 Source for National Weather” certainly caught my eye.
I’ve tried multiple times to contact the owners of the Facebook page that published that graphic. I sent a Facebook message and sent an email message to the email address on their website. I’ve received no response. So, all I know about them is what I see online.
From what I see, both the Facebook page and associated website are published by a group of amateur storm chasers, none of whom appear to have a meteorology degree.
In the U.S., only one source of weather information has the authority to issue the official watches and warnings that trigger weather radios, etc.
Don’t read what I’m not writing! There’s nothing wrong with an amateur-run Facebook page or website distributing interesting or important weather information. I do it all the time on Facebook, this blog, Twitter, etc. What I don’t do, however, is claim that my information is any better than others’.
Why? Because I don’t want anyone to assume that my blog, Facebook page or Twitter feed (or anyone’s for that matter) is a safe and reliable way to get timely, live-saving weather alerts, especially NWS warnings. Not even the NWS’ own Facebook and Twitter feeds are timely enough for that (yet).
That’s also why I consistently encourage readers – for their safety – to maintain timely access to NWS products (e.g. via NOAA Weather Radio, smartphone apps triggered by NWS products, Wireless Emergency Alerts, etc.).
All of us who publish weather information on social media and other Internet channels have a responsibility to inform and remind readers that in the U.S., only one source of weather information has the authority to issue the official watches and warnings that trigger weather radios, etc.: The National Weather Service. Likewise, we must not publish anything that could potentially mislead readers into believing that our social media feeds can keep them as safe as do directly received NWS warnings.
Our readers’ lives could depend on it!
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