Tag Archives: National Weather Service

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.

“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.