Tag Archives: storm spotter

Indiana ham radio SKYWARN net changes name, scope

Allen County, Indiana SKYWARN net operations manual cover thumbnailThe amateur radio SKYWARN net based in Fort Wayne will undergo slight changes, effective Feb 1, 2017. Formerly known as the IMO SKYWARN Quadrant Two Net, it will now be referred to as the Allen County SKYWARN Net. The net will continue, however, to accept and relay reports from spotters outside Allen County, including stations in places like DeKalb and Defiance County, which were not officially part of the former quadrant net’s responsibility. Continue reading

How new friends changed my attitude about storm chasers

Storm chasers on a storm
Photo by Michael Enfield, used with permission

For some time, I’ve looked at amateur storm chasers with some disdain. I believed that too many were putting themselves into too much danger, just to see, photograph and/or video record tornados. I doubted that many chasers were truly motivated by improving public safety and even fewer were doing real science, no matter what they said. I was concerned that many chasers set poor examples for the general public and that their “antics” encouraged lesser informed people to take uneducated and unwise risks.

I’ve been a SKYWARN storm spotter for more than a quarter century. When talking to friends, family members and even journalists about my volunteer service to the National Weather Service (NWS), I was careful to make sure they understood that I’m not a chaser, like the people they’ve seen on TV or on the Web. My ultimate goal, I’d explain, isn’t to see tornadoes, it’s to help protect my community from possible storms by staying close to home and relaying valuable information to the NWS.

So it was with some trepidation that I attended an event in November, 2015 called INChaserCon, a one-day convention in the Indianapolis area for storm chasers. I’m glad I went. Some of the people I met there subsequently changed my thinking. They are admittedly driven by a desire to see tornadoes. But my subsequent experience with them demonstrated that they’re also very passionate about getting reports to the NWS.

After the chasers learned that I have access to NWSChat – a private, internet-based text chatroom run by the NWS – they invited me to join them on Zello, a smartphone app with which they communicate with each other—so I could relay their reports to the NWS via NWSChat.

That’s exactly what happened during the August, 2016 tornado outbreak in Indiana and Ohio. As a tornadic storm moved east from Kokomo into the county warning area of my local NWS office, storm chasers John Tinney, Eric Lawson and David Buell reported wall clouds, funnel clouds, etc. via Zello. I relayed those reports via NWSChat.

Then, a storm over my own home in Fort Wayne, Indiana received a tornado warning. Storm chaser Michael Enfield immediately headed toward that storm. Via Zello, he promptly reported a wall cloud, then funnel clouds and then a tornado for me to relay via NWSChat. The NWS survey report recorded the time of the tornado’s initial touchdown as 5:27 p.m. – the same time as Enfield’s report, confirming that he saw and reported the tornado when it first touched down. That storm eventually did EF-3 damage to a rural part of Allen County, Indiana.

Throughout the event, any time the chasers had something to report, if I wasn’t immediately available on Zello, they’d keep trying until I acknowledged their reports. Getting reports through to the NWS was clearly very important to them. By the end of the event, I had typed 50 reports into NWSchat. All but about 15 of those came from storm chasers on Zello. The rest came from storm spotters via ham radio.

By aggressively chasing storms, my new friends put themselves in positions to immediately report weather that was not near any traditional SKYWARN spotters at the time. By religiously reporting, they played significant roles in protecting people in the paths of the storms.

A Facebook post by Lawson sums up pretty well how this particular group of storm chasers sees things:

“I noticed a developing supercell heading towards Kokomo was looking really strong and rushed out the door. By the time I was on interstate 69 southbound the strong EF3 was already in progress and heading towards the town in which I have spent many days of my youth, and is home to many great friends and their families. Hearing reports of the devastation in progress on the radio made my heart sink. I was rushing south in horror wondering if anyone I knew had been hurt. This is the moment that things really changed for me, I felt less excited about seeing tornadoes, and much more concerned with providing accurate information to keep people informed.”

I have no doubt there are other storm chasers out there who rarely report their observations to the NWS. There are likely some that don’t care about anything but the excitement of seeing a tornado.

But I’m convinced that the storm chasers I know are not among these. They’ve changed my attitude about chasers.

ARRL HQ: No guidance on closed ARES nets

ARRL logoA staff member of the American Radio Relay League, the United States’ largest organization of amateur (ham) radio operators, says he is not aware of any “ARRL guidance to restrict participation in a net.”

Sean Kutzko, KX9X, media and public relations manager, responded April 23 to an inquiry this blog made of the League’s emergency preparedness manager April 12. I asked the questions below after learning of a newspaper article about a Texas Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) net turning away a licensed amateur. ARES is a program of the ARRL.

  • Does the ARRL provide guidance to its ARES leaders regarding the restriction of participation in ARES nets (i.e. the operation of “closed” nets during which only certain amateurs are permitted to transmit)?
  • If so, what guidance does the ARRL provide on this matter?
  • Under what circumstances (if any) should a local ARES net be closed to all outsiders?
  • What legal authority (if any) does an ARES net control station have to bar any licensed amateur from checking in and/or participating?
  • By barring certain amateurs from participating, does an ARES net risk interfering with a licensed amateur’s ability to transmit an emergency message in violation of 97.101(c)?

Below is the verbatim response from the League’s PR guy:

“One of the cardinal rules of all facets of Amateur Radio is “listen, listen, listen.” If Amateurs can provide data of _legitimate_ value to a weather net that is responding to a weather situation, they should be able to do so.  That said, if an Amateur has nothing to contribute to such a net, the Amateur should remain silent to allow legitimate traffic to be passed.

“I’m not of aware of any ARRL guidance to restrict participation in a net. Amateurs should listen to the net control station for guidance on what information is needed, and remain silent if they cannot provide information that fulfills the requested need. Net control stations should listen to the request being made of participating stations, as bona fide emergency traffic takes priority and can come from anyone.”

Making storm spotter reports while traveling

U.S. map showing county warning areas of each National Weather Service weather forecast office
County warning areas of each National Weather Service weather forecast office (NWS image).

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:

  1. Which WFO’s CWA you’re in.
  2. How to contact that WFO.

SpotterNetwork.org

SpotterNetwork.org's reporting page displays the ID and phone number of the appropriate NWS office to members who are logged in and using a location-reporting app.
SpotterNetwork.org’s reporting page displays the ID and phone number of the appropriate NWS office to members who are logged in and using a location-reporting app.

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.

I use WDT’s RadarScope app on my iPhone. According the the SpotterNetwork.org website, Android users have several additional choices, including ChaserLocation, PYKL3 Radar and Radar Alive!

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.

Weather.gov

The watch-warning-advisory map on the NWS home page allows viewers to find the NWS office for any location by clicking that location on the map.
The watch-warning-advisory map on the NWS home page allows viewers to find the NWS office for any location by clicking that location on the map.

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.

911

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.

In most communities, hams conduct weather-related communications on a repeater system.  Ways to learn what repeaters exist in any location include the American Radio Relay League’s (ARRL) printed “Repeater Directory,” the website and apps of the ARRL-endorsed www.rfinder.net and the independent RepeaterBook.com website.

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.

Where thunderstorms go to die

SKYWARN storm spotters and future spotters prepare for training Feb. 16, 2016 at the Public Safety Academy of Northeast Indiana, Fort Wayne
SKYWARN storm spotters and future spotters prepare for training Feb. 16, 2016 at the Public Safety Academy of Northeast Indiana, Fort Wayne

The husband-and-wife team of Amos and Megan Dodson, both meteorologists at the northern Indiana office of the National Weather Service (NWS), conducted the annual SKYWARN storm spotter training Feb. 16 at the Public Safety Academy of Northeast Indiana.

The content of the training didn’t change much from last year’s presentation. It focused on the differences between truly threatening weather phenomena and scary-looking, but harmless (and unreportable) conditions.

Here are some highlights:

  • Spotter reports add credibility. When the NWS issues a warning that includes a reference to a spotter report, members of the general public are more likely to take action than when the warning does not include a spotter reference.
  • Don’t wait for activation. Although our NWS office issues hazardous weather outlooks that indicate whether spotter activation is likely, the office does not “activate” or “deploy” spotters. It welcomes spotters to make reports anytime they see anything reportable.
  • Clouds with ragged edges aren’t spinning. Scary-looking SCUD clouds that are shaped like funnel clouds generate a lot of well-intended but false reports from untrained observers. True funnel clouds and tornadoes spin, giving them sharper, smoother edges.
  • When unsure, send a photo. NWS encourages spotters who see something that might be reportable (like a possible wall cloud or funnel cloud), to photograph it and send the photo via Twitter (@NWSIWX) or the NWS office’s Facebook page. The office monitors both social networks closely during severe weather events.
  • T.E.L. NWS. When spotters make reports, they should provide the Time of the observation, a description of the Event, and the Location of the event. The actual time of day is more valuable than “right now” or “two minutes ago.” And because the local NWS office does not issue spotter credentials, formatting reports in that specific order is one way spotters can demonstrate they attended the training.
  • Thunderstorms come here to die! Spotters provide a valuable service to their communities even if they don’t see anything reportable. And climatology data shows that spotters in Indiana are about half as likely to see something as are spotters in Illinois. Megan Dodson shared that this leads meteorologists to joke that Indiana is where thunderstorms come to die.

Mysteriously, far fewer people attended the training than registered for it, even though weather did not hinder travel that night. Those in attendance, however, included TV meteorologist Hannah Strong, who indicated that the presentation included information not provided in meteorology school.

People who missed the training can get via the Web most of the information they need to be effective spotters. Two options include

Indiana man’s car shows unusual commitment to storm spotting

Dunkirk, Ind. volunteer SKYWARN storm spotter Gary Wesley paid a sign company to decorate his primary vehicle with weather-related graphics to promote his avocation.
Dunkirk volunteer storm spotter Gary Wesley paid a sign company to decorate his primary vehicle with weather-related graphics to promote his avocation.

An east-central Indiana man has gone to unusual lengths to promote the National Weather Service’s SKYWARN program, which recruits and trains volunteer storm spotters. Gary Wesley, Dunkirk, bought a decommissioned, 2005 Chevrolet Impala police car and paid a sign company $2,000 to design, create and wrap the vehicle with weather-related graphics. Wesley also installed an amber light bar and ham radio antennas.

Having gotten involved in storm spotting as a teen, Wesley was disappointed by the level of interest he discovered when he settled in Dunkirk after a medical retirement from a military career that included time as a recruiter for the Indiana Army National Guard. His work as a recruiter gave him an idea to promote the SKYWARN program.

“We had a Humvee that we called, ‘The Super Hummer,’ that was all decked out with images on it to help with recruiting at events,” Wesley said.

He decided to create his own rolling billboard for storm spotting.

“I figured, with my passion for being involved in storm spotting and volunteer work, it would just be an easy way to promote it,” Wesley explained. He believed that if nothing else, people who saw the car would ask questions about it, giving him a chance to talk about storm spotting.

Wesley uses the car for more than storm spotting. It’s one of two cars in the family (his wife drives a Jeep) and his primary form of transportation.

“The only thing that I’m hoping for … is to be able to increase the number of spotters.”

He says the car has attracted attention and provided a few opportunities to explain storm spotting to strangers. But he’s gotten a few negative reactions, too.

Dunkirk, Ind. volunteer SKYWARN storm spotter Gary Wesley paid a sign company to decorate his primary vehicle with weather-related graphics to promote his avocation.“Everyone at the VA hospital thinks it’s nuts,” Wesley commented. “There has been a few people,” Wesley continued, “that, when they see the car, just because of the light bar and antennas … feel that I’m trying to impersonate a police officer.” After he explained the car and storm spotting, he said, the same people expressed their continued (misguided) beliefs that storm spotters are not needed, because of radar and the Internet.

And his wife? Her first reaction, Wesley said, was “I am not driving something like that around.” Unfortunately for her, it’s sometimes necessary for the two to trade cars, for example, when Wesley needs to pick up something that won’t fit in the Impala. Her attitude softened with time and Wesley says she has no problem with it anymore, although she still thinks it’s “kind of loud and obnoxious-looking.”

Wesley does not deny that he intended for the car to attract attention, but he said he doesn’t want that attention for himself.

“The only thing that I’m hoping for with this vehicle,” Wesley said, “is to be able to increase the number of spotters that are out there and to make people more aware of weather issues.”

Has technology led people to believe storm spotters are no longer necessary?

Storm spotter capturing image of developing tornado with cell phonesIt’s amazing how much information I can get on my smartphone, especially weather information. The app stores have dozens — maybe hundreds — of weather apps. They offer much more than today’s forecast. Some even claim to tell users when it will start raining at their locations.

Regardless of how valid or accurate is the information such apps provide, I wonder if they’ve led people to (incorrectly) believe that technology has the weather covered — that there’s little need anymore for human input, such as that provided by trained, SKYWARN® storm spotters.

Do people assume that the same technology that tells them what time the rain will begin can also automatically sense such hazards as tornadoes and severe thunderstorms?

If so, that could help explain why registration is down this year for free National Weather Service storm spotter classes in northern Indiana, northwestern Ohio and southern Lower Michigan.

For example, as of Jan. 25, fewer than 10 people had registered for spotter classes scheduled in Columbia City, Ind. and Glandorf, Ohio. This, despite frequent promotion on social media and other channels by the northern Indiana NWS office and others.

The entire severe weather warning system continues to rely heavily on the first-hand reports of trained spotters.

The truth — as any meteorologist will tell you — is that the entire severe weather warning system continues to rely heavily on the first-hand reports of trained spotters. Why? Because they can see things that radar and other technology cannot.

Radar, for example, can detect rotation in a storm, hundreds to thousands of feet above the ground. But it cannot tell meteorologists whether a funnel cloud has formed or whether a tornado is on the ground. Also, technology cannot tell meteorologists what damage a storm is doing. The NWS needs eye-witness reports from trained spotters for that.

If you’ve ever looked up a scary-looking cloud and wondered if you should worry;

If you’d like a better understand of severe weather to help allay fears;

If you’re a weather enthusiast and would like to apply that interest in a way that provides a life-saving service to your community;

Consider taking the free storm spotter training. You can find a session near you on the website of your local NWS office (type in your ZIP code at www.weather.gov and then look for the link on the forecast page that follows the phrase, “Your local forecast office is”). Some sessions begin as early as next week, so don’t put it off until storm season begins!

As good as weather technology is, it has not replaced they eyes of trained, volunteer storm spotters. Your community needs you!

Updated: Seminars offer deeper dive for SKYWARN storm spotters

Seminars around Indiana provide opporutnities for advanced training for SKYWARN storm spottersJan. 5, I wrote about annual SKYWARN storm spotter training beginning in less than a month in some parts of Indiana. Today, I’d like to share other educational opportunities for spotters and others who’d like to take a deeper dive into severe weather meteorology.

Central Indiana Severe Weather Symposium, Indianapolis

2016 Central Indiana Severe Weather Symposium logoThis day-long event, hosted by the central Indiana chapter of the American Meteorology Society and the National Weather Service Indianapolis weather forecast office, always provides lots of fascinating information of value to storm spotters. If you want to attend, register early, because it often “sells out” well before the day of the event.

Saturday, March 5, 2016, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Reilly Room, Atherton Union, Butler University, 704 West Hampton Drive. Information and registration: http://www.weather.gov/ind/2016CISWS. Twitter tweets about this event carry the hash tag #CISWS.

DuPage County Advanced Severe Weather Seminar, Wheaton, Ill.

2016 DuPage County Advanced Severe Weather Seminar infographicThis all-day event in one of is one of the best advanced spotter training opportunities in the Midwest. I’ve attended at least twice. It’s in a western suburb of Chicago, so it’s a bit of a drive for many Hoosiers! DuPage College’s meteorology professors usually speak and they’re both great presenters.

Saturday, March 12, 2016, Wheaton College. Information and registration are now available at https://www.dupageco.org/weatherseminar/. See also: #DuPageWxSeminar and https://www.facebook.com/groups/dupagesevereweather/.

Ohio State Meteorology Club Severe Weather Symposium, Columbus, Ohio

I’ve attended at least three of these annual, all-day events. They usually contain interesting information and speakers but they are geared more toward meteorology students than to spotters.

Friday, March 4, 2016, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. Information and registration are now available at http://u.osu.edu/metclub/symposium/2016-symposium/.

Severe Weather Awareness Day, Nashville, Tenn.

This annual event might be of interest to storm spotters who live in southern Indiana and points south. I’ve never attended, but a friend has been impressed with it. As you can see in the flyer image above, one of this year’s speakers is well-known broadcast meteorologist James Spann.

Saturday, Feb. 27, Trevecca Nazarene University, Nashville, Tenn. Information (with registration beginning Feb. 1) at http://www.srh.noaa.gov/ohx/?n=swad2016. See also  https://twitter.com/hashtag/swad2016?f=tweets&vertical=default.

Others?

If you know of other good, advanced training opportunities for storm spotters, leave a note in the comments section of this blog post.

A weather safety tip you might not have thought of: Footwear

Photo of feet wearing flip-flops with red X superimposed. Flip-flops are poor footwear for severe weather days. Indiana Severe Weather Preparedness Week. #INWxReady #WRNSandals, especially flip-flops, which are so popular when the weather is warm, are poor choices for severe weather days.

My feet get warm easily. I have a pair of Chacos brand sandals that I wear almost every day during warm weather. But not on days that I might need to serve as a storm spotter.

If severe weather is coming our way, I usually change into a sturdy pair of ankle-supporting hunting boots I bought on sale at Cabela’s, even if I’ll be staying home during the storm.

Why? On word: debris.

National Weather Service photo

After a storm passes, I might have to walk through storm debris, which can include pieces of trees and pieces of buildings. The walking surface might be uneven. Some of the debris might have sharp edges.

I choose to protect my feet from all that, a practice I learned back in the 90s when I served as an emergency medical technician and communications technician on a Disaster Medical Assistance Team. It’s how I dressed my feet every day, even in tropical weather when assisting the victims of Hurricanes Andrew and Marilyn.

My advice: If you’re a storm spotter or storm chaser, get yourself a good pair of boots to wear anytime you’re in the field, even on hot, humid days. And no matter who you are, if you ever have to take shelter in your house from a coming storm, take the most protective footwear you have with you to the basement, interior room, etc. Put them on after the storm, before you step outside to survey the damage. Your feet will be much safer.

91 attend Fort Wayne SKYWARN storm spotter training

For the first time in a couple years, meteorologists from the northern Indiana office of the National Weather Service (NWS) personally conducted training of SKYWARN storm spotters in Fort Wayne Feb. 17. Warning coordination meteorologist Michael Lewis, KG4KJQ and meteorologist Michael “Skip” Skipper presented the training to an official total of 91 attendees. Approximately half of audience members raised their hands when Lewis asked hams to identify themselves.

Audience at NWS SKYWARN storm spotter training, Fort Wayne, Indiana, Feb. 2015
Figure 1: Ninety-one people attended NWS SKYWARN training in Fort Wayne Feb. 17 (Photo by Whitley County emergency manager Charlie Heflin).

The session included the usual information on the role of the spotter, storm development, local severe weather climatology, recognition of various weather phenomena, spotter safety and reporting procedures. A detailed description of the training is beyond the scope of this article, which will instead touch on a few of the highlights, especially those portions that were new this year. If you missed the training, NWS plans two sessions near Fort Wayne this month:

  • March 16, 6 p.m. ET, Paulding, Ohio
  • March 19, 6 p.m. ET, Bluffton, Ind.

Detailed information about both sessions can be found at on the NWS Northern Indiana website.

One new feature of the training this year was audience participation via electronic polling. The presenters evaluated audience knowledge before and after the training by asking them to respond to questions via text message, Twitter or Web page form. Responses appeared on the projection screen in real time.

Thunderstorm spectrum discussed

One highlight of this year’s presentation was a discussion of the thunderstorm spectrum (see figure 2). It ranges from single-cell “pulse” storms, to two forms of multi-cell storms, to the classic supercell thunderstorm. Large, strong tornadoes originate from supercell storms, but such storms are rare in the 37-county warning area (CWA) of the northern Indiana NWS office. Multi-cell storms, especially “derecho”-type squall lines can produce winds as strong as weak tornadoes, which is why spotters and the general public should not ignore severe thunderstorm warnings. It’s important for spotters to understand that, especially in the northern Indiana CWA, storms can change type one or more times during their existence.

Thunderstorm spectrum slide from NWS SKYWARN storm spotter training. Single-cell pulse thunderstorm, multicell cluster storms and squall lines, and supercell
Figure 2: Slide from NWS spotter training presentation, used with permission.

When it comes to tornadoes, 82 percent of twisters in the northern Indiana CWA create damage at the EF0 or EF1 levels of the enhanced Fujita scale (see figure 3). Note that EF0 tornadoes can have winds as week as 65 mph. Severe thunderstorms can and often do produce much stronger winds. Also note that EF0 and EF1 tornadoes are very difficult for NWS Doppler radar to detect, sometimes developing and dissipating between radar scans. Less than one percent of storms in the northern Indiana office’s CWA reach the EF4 damage level, with wind speeds of 166 mph or greater.

Enhanced Fujita scale with probabilities in northern Indiana county warning area
Figure 3: Slide from NWS spotter training presentation, used with permission.

Convective outlooks change

Situational awareness is an important part of spotter preparation and safety. The NWS Storm Prediction Center’s (SPC) convective outlooks are important situational awareness resources. Those outlooks look different now (see Figure 4). The new day one through day three convective outlooks have three risk categories between “general (non-severe) thunderstorms” and “moderate risk,” instead of the former single “slight risk” category. A “marginal risk” category now falls between “general thunderstorms” and “slight risk” and new “enhanced risk” category falls between “slight risk” and “moderate risk.” An SPC video briefing that fully explains the change in convective outlooks is available on the SPC’s website.

Categorical convective outlooks have new categories between "general thunderstorms" and "moderate risk"
Figure 4: Slide from NWS spotter training presentation, used with permission.

Also related to situational awareness is the announcement that the NWS office’s home page layout – and possibly navigation and URLs – will soon change. If you have bookmarked, for example, the severe weather briefing page on the northern Indiana office’s website, you might need to update your bookmarks after the change.

New spotter mnemonic: T.E.L.

This year’s training presentation uses a new mnemonic acronym to help spotters remember what the NWS needs to know (see Figure 5): “T.E.L. us.”

The “T” stands for “time.” Spotter reports should contain the clock time at which the spotter observed the event, even if it’s happening while the spotter sends the report. For example, rather than saying “now,” or “two minutes ago,” spotters should say “4:38 p.m.” or “1638 Eastern time.”

The “E” stands for “event.” This is the part of the report that contains detailed information about what the spotter saw, for example, hail (by size), a wall cloud, funnel cloud, tornado, wind or lightning damage (described), flooding, etc.

The “L” stands for “location.” This part of the report should contain a specific location, for example, “Allen County, Indiana, two miles northwest of Grabil,” or “In Fort Wayne, near the intersection of Coliseum Boulevard and Vance Avenue.”

Note that the reporting criteria are different than NWS warning criteria. For example, the NWS issues a severe thunderstorm warning for any storm that it expects to produce either winds of 58 mph or greater or hail of one inch or more in diameter. But the spotter reporting criteria are winds of 50 mph and hail of any size.

SKYWARN storm spotter reporting criteria from NWS Northern Indiana training presentation
Figure 5: Slide from NWS spotter training presentation, used with permission.

Finally, the NWS included in this year’s presentation a new reporting method matrix (see Figure 6). As in previous years, the meteorologists strongly recommended the use of the Twitter social media channel, while taking care to avoid discounting the importance of ham radio.

A primary advantage of reporting via ham radio is that others listening to the same frequency will simultaneously hear the report, aiding in the situational awareness of those who are monitoring. Another advantage is the resiliency of ham radio and the fact that it continues to work during Internet and cellular telephone failures. Disadvantages of reporting via ham radio include:

  • Inadequate volunteer staffing of the ham station at the NWS office often means that net control stations must re-file the reports by other means (e.g. telephone or an internal NWS Internet chat system).
  • When the ham station at the NWS office is staffed, the operator there must write down each report and then hand it off to a meteorologist, creating a certain amount of delay.
  • Until and unless the NWS issues a “local storm report” based on the spotter’s report, the information in the report is available only to those who are monitoring the frequency, which often includes few of the many spotters who are not hams and have no equipment with which to monitor.
  • Ham radio systems currently in use for SKYWARN provide no means of including photographic data with spotter reports.

Advantages of the Twitter social media channel include:

  • The channel does not rely on the limited availability of volunteer operators at the NWS.
  • Reports show up immediately on a computer in the NWS office, without relay or transcription.
  • Reports are visible immediately to anyone who has access to the Internet, including other spotters, emergency managers, members of the news media and the general public. As Lewis put it at one training session this year, “Call me and you and I know. Tweet me and the whole world knows.”
  • Reports can include photographs or video of events being reported, aiding in the NWS’ ability to validate the reports
  • The capacity of Internet channels is virtually unlimited, enabling the NWS to encourage sub-criteria reports.

Note that on the reporting methods matrix, the NWS encourages spotters to report winds of less than the normal reporting criteria of 50 mph (the approximate speed at which structural damage begins to occur) when using social media or the “mPing” app (more on that below). But for ham radio and telephone reports, the minimum wind is 50 mph. This is a sign that NWS really wants much more information from the field than it has received in the past but understands the limited capacities of channels such as ham radio and telephone.

For spotters who choose to use their Internet-connected mobile devices to file reports, a relatively new option is the Meteorological Phenomena Identification Near the Ground (mPing) app from the National Severe Storms Laboratory. The app is available for both the Andoid and iOS platforms and originally only accepted precipitation reports. The current version also allows users to send hail, wind damage, tornado, flood and other reports. Reports sent via mPing show up directly on Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS) terminals in NWS offices. A disadvantage of mPing is that all reports are anonymous and as such, users cannot identify reports as coming from trained spotters.

SKYWARN storm spotter guide to preferred reporting methods from NWS Northern Indiana trainnig
Figure 6: Slide from NWS spotter training presentation, used with permission.

In conclusion, I encourage all hams who are spotters to become familiar with Twitter, especially those who have Internet-connected mobile devices (e.g. smart phones). At the same time, I also encourage all hams to continue to make reports via ham radio, even if they’re also reporting via Twitter. This will assist in the situational awareness of spotters who are on the ham frequency as well as those who are only able to monitor Twitter.

I have become active on Twitter (@RadioW9LW, if you’d like to “follow” me) and will be happy to provide any assistance I can to any spotters who want to know more about Twitter. You can reach me via the “Contact W9LW” form in the right-hand column of this blog.