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.
And the Beaufort wind force scale is flawed, says storm data researcher
As an avid kite flier, I’m often out in windy conditions. More than once, on a particularly windy day, I’ve guessed at the wind speed, only to be surprised when a handheld anemometer shows a speed as much as 10 mph lower than I guessed. It’s easy to think the wind is blowing stronger than it is. And a recent scientific study proves that.
“Storm reporters overestimated the speeds of wind gusts—on average, by about one third of the gusts’ actual speeds.”
The resulting paper, “Quantitative Assessment of Human Wind Speed Overestimation,” appears in the April, 2016 issue of the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology (JAMC). Its authors report that “storm reporters overestimated the speeds of wind gusts—on average, by about one third of the gusts’ actual speeds,” according to a report on the study in Eos. (Members of the American Meteorology Society may view the full text of the original, JAMC article.)
I learned in SKYWARN storm spotter training that if I don’t have an anemometer, I can estimate wind speeds based on what I see the wind doing, using the Beaufort wind scale as a reference. Supposedly, an estimate based on whether the wind is (for example) causing large tree branches to move (32 to 38 mph, according to the Beaufort scale) is more reliable than an estimate based on how the wind feels against my body.
That might be true, but Beaufort-based estimates are still unreliable, because the Beaufort scale is flawed, study lead author Paul Miller told Eos.
What’s a SKYWARN storm spotter to do? I’ve heard a National Weather Service (NWS) warning coordination meteorologist say many times that damage reports are much more valuable to NWS weather forecast offices than are wind speed estimates. Now that I know my wind speed estimates — even those based on the Beaufort scale — are probably wrong, here’s what I’ll send NWS instead; a detailed description of damage I see the wind doing.
I encourage my fellow storm spotters to likewise report wind damage, rather than estimated wind speeds.
A high-level Texas official of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) has created a policy that bars ARES groups under his purview from prohibiting the participation of any licensed amateur radio operator in their ARES nets.
As this blog explained in an earlier post, ARES is a program of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national organization of ham radio operators. Regional, elected ARRL section managers appoint ARES leaders within their sections, including section emergency coordinators (SEC), who lead the program at a section level and district emergency coordinators (DEC), who lead it at a multi-county level.
Matthew Morris, K5ICR is SEC for the ARRL North Texas section, which is made up of dozens of counties, including Wichita County. As SEC, Morris has authority to create policy for all ARES organizations in his section.
When contacted by this blog via email, Morris wrote, “I’m not sure it was so much a revision of policy but just that we codified into policy what’s been a long-standing best practice for ARES.”
(a) All ARES nets shall be open for participation by any licensed amateur. No net control station or ARES leadership acting in an official capacity shall prohibit the good faith participation of any licensed amateur.
(b) Nothing in this section shall be construed to prevent the establishment of minimum reporting criteria by a net control station or ARES leadership as appropriate to the situation at hand, so long as these criteria are not established intentionally or knowingly to prevent the participation of an amateur or group of amateurs.
Morris promulgated the policy after an article in a Texas newspaper described the Wichita County ARES net shooing off an amateur radio operator who attempted to check into the group’s severe weather net. On an audio recording of the net, one can hear net controller Jerry R. Stanford, KD5INN tell Australian storm chaser Daniel Shaw, VK2FSRV, “I do not want to hear you transmit on this frequency. We have a closed net.”
In a subsequent email to this blog, Charlie Byars, the DEC responsible for Wichita County (who the newspaper article quoted), confirmed that the Wichita County ARES did not permit outsiders to participate in its net, except to transmit emergency reports. It accomplished this by declaring the W5US repeater — on which the net operates — to be closed, with the blessing of the repeater’s owners. A closed repeater is one that only stations authorized by the repeater owner may use.
The North Texas section’s new policy prohibits the practice of conducting an ARES net on a closed repeater. The SEC has no authority, however, over storm spotter nets that are not affiliated with the ARES.
This blog sent email April 19 to the trustee of the Wichita Falls repeater that the Wichita County storm spotters use to ask, “Will the W5US repeater comply during future severe weather nets and end its policy of becoming a closed repeater during such nets?” If the trustee responds, I’ll update this article accordingly.
It is interesting to note that one day after Morris issued the section’s new ARES net policy, the Facebook page of the Wichita County ARES changed. The page title changed to “Wichita County SKYWARN” and the profile picture changed from the ARES logo to the SKYWARN logo. That same day, Justin Reed, NV8Q reported on a storm chaser Web forum that “As of today the Wichita County ARES group has renamed themselves to Wichita County Skywarn in order to get around the ‘open net’ requirement. So nothing has really changed here.”
Today, this blog reached out again to Byars via email, who replied, “As far as I know we are still ARES, and will stay that way.” Later the same day, the group’s Facebook page changed again. Its title became “Wichita County ARES / Skywarn” and its profile picture became the the ARES and SKYWARN logos side-by-side.
This blog congratulates Morris on his prompt action to implement best practices in section policy and encourages all ARRL sections to enact similar policies, if they do not already exist.
The editor of this blog leads a SKYWARN ham radio net in Indiana. A future post will discuss how that net operates and why all licensed radio amateurs are welcome and encouraged to participate fully in it.
In an earlier blog post, I reported that the owners of a Texas ham radio repeater prohibit use of the system by licensed amateur radio operators who are not members of the local Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) group when an ARES storm spotter net is in session.
My blog post was based on a newspaper article about the net shooing off a ham who wanted to check in.
Below is an audio clip of an exchange between Australian storm chaser Daniel Shaw, VK2FSRV and net control station operator Jerry R. Stanford, KD5INN. Listen and decide for yourself what you think of this exchange. I welcome your comments, especially regarding whether your local SKYWARN net prohibits check-ins by outsiders and why or why not.
Trained storm spotters in the National Weather Service (NWS) SKYWARN program who are also licensed amateur (ham) radio operators should not assume they’ll be welcome on SKYWARN nets while traveling.
A Wichita Falls, Texas newspaper article republished this week on the “Emergency Management” magazine website reports that a local official of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) is concerned that hams who are not members of the Wichita County ARES – especially hams who are storm chasers – try to check into the group’s SKYWARN net. The “Times Record News” report called such hams “intruders” who net control stations must “shoo” from their “closed radio frequency.” Such hams “are told they are welcome to listen — but not to talk,” the newspaper reports.
Here’s an audio recording of the exchange that prompted the newspaper story:
ARES is a program of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national organization of ham radio operators. Regional, elected ARRL section managers appoint ARES leaders within their sections, including district emergency coordinators, who lead the program at a multi-county level.
The newspaper article quotes ARES district emergency coordinator Charlie Byars, W5GPO. This blog contacted Byars via email for more information about the situation in northern Texas. He confirms that during severe weather events, the W5US repeater system on which the local SKYWARN net operates becomes closed.
A repeater is a system commonly used by ham radio operators that receives a signal and re-transmits it, usually with higher power and from a better location, to provide greater communication range. Such equipment is often owned by clubs and sometimes by individuals. While the radio frequencies that repeaters use belong to the public, federal regulation 47 CFR 97.205(e) explicitly permits the owner of any repeater to limit its use to certain stations.
Byars explains that the W5US repeater is normally open to all hams, but its owners invoke 47 CFR 97.205(e) and close it to unauthorized users during severe weather events. But, Byars adds, that doesn’t prevent any ham from reporting severe weather. “We will take an emergency report from anyone, and refer the information to the NWS office,” he explains.
Beyond the transmission of an emergency report, however, the owners of the W5US repeater prohibit any use of the repeater during SKYWARN operations by anyone who is not a member of the local ARES group.
This blog contacted ARRL staff via email to learn whether the national organization offers guidance to leaders of its ARES program regarding the use of closed nets. The League’s April 23 reply appears in a separate post.
Fortunately for people like the Australian radio amateur who attempted to check into the Texas ARES net, the NWS office in Norman, Okla. – which serves that part of Texas. – welcomes “spotters, chasers and anyone else” to “submit storm reports at any time,” writes Rick Smith, KI5GT, the office’s warning coordination meteorologist. In an email to this blog, Smith suggests the following alternatives to ham radio, in order of office preference: Telephone, SpotterNetwork.org, a form on the office’s website and Twitter.
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.