GETTING STARTED IN TORNADO AND THUNDERSTORM SPOTTING

Keith Brewster, N0IAW

May, 1996 Updated, April, 2004

All rights reserved.


 The Role of the Spotter

While movies and documentaries often focus on "storm chasers" who roam the plains in search of tornadic storms for research data collecting, video taping or, yes, thrill seeking, a more direct service to the public is provided by the "storm spotter". The storm spotter serves a community by participating in an organized effort to watch for storms approaching the community and warn of the formation of tornadoes or other threatening severe weather. Even with the use of Doppler radar there is a need for spotters in the field. The radar can only detect the parent circulation that spawns tornadoes, information is needed about whether tornadoes are actually being produced and their precise location. Also, certain types of tornadoes can form before a Doppler radar signature is detected.

 Organization of Spotters

The organization of spotters varies across the country, but is typically done at the county level. The county Emergency Management Agency (EMA, often formerly known as Civil Defense), is typically the focal point for organizing the spotting activities. Spotting may be done by paid public emergency personnel, such as sherrif's deputies, police and/or firefighters. Often coverage is provided by volunteer amateur radio operators (commonly known as "hams"), who are organized in spotter networks. Such spotter networks are often known as SKYWARN networks. These networks use amateur radio repeaters that can provide communication over a radius of 30 miles or more from the repeater site. A typical spotter network has a Net Control Station (NCS) who controls the exchange of information by polling the operators, providing weather information to all stations and dispatching operators to key lookout sites on the periphery of a town. Depending on the area to be covered and the range of the repeater, some amateurs may roam, driving out to developing storms and following them toward the area being protected. Amateurs also commonly equip their vehicles (or a special group vehicle) with emergency communication gear and emergency power sources that can be deployed in a disaster area and will assist emergency crews in communicating the needs of the disaster teams and the welfare of the affected population.

 Contact Point

Your first contact might be with your county's emergency manager. The emergency manager can describe how storm spotting and disaster assistance is organized in your area. If services are provided by amateur radio operators he/she can direct you to the ham in charge of organizing the volunteer spotters or to the local ham radio club. You could also seek out a ham radio operator or call the National Weather Service (NWS) office nearest to your town. Ask for the Warning and Coordination Meteorologist (WCM). The amateurs often communicate with the NWS as well as local officials to directly assist in the severe storm warning process. A ham on the network may be stationed at the NWS office to provide radar and other weather information to hams in the field.

 Becoming a Licensed Amateur Radio Operator

Amateur radio operators are licensed by the FCC. There are various classes of amateur radio licenses, which allow increasing operating privileges (more bands and operating modes) as the amateur demonstrates his/her knowledge and skill in increasingly difficult tests of radio theory, rules and regulations and Morse code skill. SKYWARN spotting activities most often occur on repeaters in a frequency band that requires the easiest level of licensing, and does not require any proficiency in Morse code. Licensing is done through an organization of ham "volunteer examiners" and your local ham club can inform you of the schedule of tests and introductory classes in your area. Once you pass the test there is some delay in getting the license issued from the FCC; this can take 4-6 weeks. Instructional materials such as the introductory guide "Now You're Talking", and a contact for local ham clubs can be obtained from The American Radio Relay League (1-800-32-NEW HAM) or at local radio supply stores. Generally you'll find hams quite helpful in getting you started and underway in amateur radio.

 Spotter Training

The National Weather Service, local Emergency Managememt officials and the local ham radio group organize training sessions for storm spotters. An NWS meteorologist will visit and use nationally- prepared slide and film materials to help the spotters learn what to look for and how to remain safe in their operation. Local officials will use this session to explain specific operating procedures, call-out methods, etc. Such sessions are often held a month or two before the most active severe weather season for your area (typically January-May).

 Web Resources

Here are some places on the World Wide Web that may be useful in learning about amateur radio, public service and SKYWARN.