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Introduction to the National Skywarn Storm Spotter Program

This article is an introduction to the National Skywarn Storm Spotter Program, an organization made up of trained volunteers who report hazardous...
  1. The United States of American is no stranger to a wide variety of different kinds of meteorological hazards. From tornadoes to hurricanes, flashing flooding to heavy winter precipitation – all seasons allow for severe weather no matter if associated with warm or cool temperatures. The government-sponsored operating service for meteorological observation, the National Weather Service, has a variety of different technologies and hardware used to detect and monitor the behavior of various hazardous weather events throughout the nation. However, technology can fail and such technology cannot see everything. This is where human eyes and recognized observation come into play.

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    Through the National Weather Service, there is a program known as the National Skywarn Storm Spotter program. This program is made up of severe hundred thousand volunteer members of all walks of life who are trained and certified in spotting severe weather and other meteorological hazards for their local community. The reports of volunteer storm spotters assist the National Weather Service, local emergency management and local communities in increasing the warning times and safety of residents through intentional observation of hazardous weather events. Without storm spotters, the number of fatalities and injuries each year related to severe weather would likely be significantly higher. Skywarn Storm Spotters save lives!

    Storm Spotters are often associated with the observation and reports of tornadoes. While observing and reporting tornadoes is a common storm spotting activity, it is important to understand the other earth hazards that spotters also observe and report, including:
    • Tornadoes
    • Other convective weather (such as large hail, damaging winds and funnel clouds)
    • Flash flooding and flooding
    • Winter precipitation
    • High winds (not always related to thunderstorms)
    • Wildland fire incidents
    • Hurricanes and tropical severe weather
    • High surf and rip currents
    • Very dense fog
    • Mudslides and landslides
    • Earthquakes, aftershocks and tsunamis
    • Volcanic ash
    • Avalanches
    Storm spotters conduct their activities in a variety of ways. Some spotters are members of public safety such as fire department and law enforcement and when spotting, they do so in an official capacity with their agencies. Some spotters belong to ham radio communications and emergency management offices. Some spotters belong to local and even national ‘spotter clubs’ and others individually spot hazard weather conditions. Some spotters may have decals and light-bars on their vehicle while others do not. The official capacity or vanity of a storm spotter is not as important as the main objection, which is reporting the ground truth of the current hazardous weather situation that may be threatening a community or region.

    While some storm spotters are ‘storm chasers’, it is important to understand that storm spotting and storm chasing is two different activities. Storm spotters do not search for tornadoes, they simply observe them for their reporting efforts to help local communities. Storm chasers often travel long distance to find and follow severe weather be it for video and photography, touring, media coverage, research or just the general thrill of experiencing hazardous weather conditions up close and personal. Some storm chasers wear two hats, being a storm spotter and a chaser at the same time. Some chasers are not spotters and some spotters are not chasers. While there has been reckless behavior from storm chasers in previous accounts, it is important to note that many chasers do serve a positive role in awareness with their footage, responsible behavior and reports that often help communities.

    The History of Storm Spotting in the United States
    Storm spotting is not a new activity. Before Skywarn was officially established, storm spotters existed throughout history. The earliest reference to storm spotting was in the early 1940s when organized groups of volunteer lightning spotters were strategically positions around munitions plants in the country. The spotters would report lightning to help protect the plants and their operations. In the mid-1940s, the number of these ‘spotter networks’ had doubled. In the 1950s, storm spotters starting assisting more with reports that helped warned communities. The weather authority at that time also started issuing public severe weather statements to help warn communities as well. Before that, issuing such a statement was actually against the law due to fear of causing public panic.

    On April 11, 1965, America experienced one of her most deadly tornado outbreaks in history. The once thriving storm spotter network had decreased due to budget cuts and lack of recruiting. This outbreak urged the National Weather Service to expand its spotter network. The aftermath of the 1965 tornado outbreak left over 200 people dead with thousands of injuries and over 80 tornadoes in one day. There was a total of over one billion dollars in damage. It is safe to say that 200+ deaths from severe weather in America is a tragic situation. While there were some spotters who reported that day, and did likely save lives, the spotter networks that once thrives were not as large as they used to be. At that time, advanced technologies such as Doppler radar did not exist. This event helped lead to the creation of what is now known as the Skywarn Storm Spotter program.

    Reporting Hazardous Weather to the National Weather Service
    The National Weather Service (NWS) is an agency of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that is tasked with the responsibility of meteorological activities in the United States. There are over 100 Weather Forecast Offices (WFO) throughout the nation. These offices are in charge of meteorological activities for their regions. Skywarn Storm Spotters observe hazardous weather conditions and report to their regional WFO to report the ‘ground truth’ of what is going on in the ‘field’. Storm spotter reports aid in the decision making of the NWS as well as public safety and communities for issuing alerts that save lives. Storm spotting is very important and will continue to be an importance to public safety and warning others about hazardous weather conditions that may be approaching them.

    Today, Skywarn storm spotters report hazardous weather observations through a variety of different methods. Most WFOs provide a ‘hotline’ phone number for storm spotters to report hazardous weather conditions. Other alternatives include amateur radio reports, internet forms, email, social media and eSpotter (where available). Please note that reporting via-amateur radio (often called ‘ham radio’) requires a license at all times. Many storm spotters are amateur radio operators and these radio operators play a significant role in storm spotting, critical communications and emergency management. Most hazardous weather reports should be relayed to the National Weather Service but some spotters also report to others who relay these messages including emergency management, emergency dispatch centers and through Skywarn-Nets, which are amateur radio groups activated for urgent reports of hazardous weather by ham radio certified storm spotters.

    Storm Spotters are still average citizens
    Members of the National Skywarn Program come from all walks of life. Some spotters are public safety officials, school teachers, doctors, security officers and regular citizens. Skywarn is NOT a public safety agency – it is important to remember that. While storm spotters are trained, the training does not allow spotters to violate laws. Storm spotters have no authority to trespass on private property, violate speed and traffic laws or act as emergency personnel at any time. Some spotters use emergency lighting, which is widely debated and it is important to note that some states and areas have specific laws underlining the use of such lighting. Storm spotters in many areas are not authorized to use emergency lightning and such use can result in fines and even arrest.

    While report the ‘ground truth’ in the ‘field’ concerning hazardous weather conditions is the role of the storm spotters, his or her main priority is to preserve their own safety. No storm spotter should ever place themselves in an unsafe situation. All spotters should be aware of the current situation, communicate with others, have escape routes and known their safe zones. This is known as ACES or Awareness, Communication, Escape Routes and Safe Zone.

    Basic Storm Spotter Reporting
    When reporting to the National Weather Service, it is important in include facts and not opinion. Do not attempt to rate a tornado based on the Fujita Scale (now called Enhanced Fujita Scale/EF-Scale). That is done through damage surveys. The following information is what you should be reporting to the NWS:
    • Your full name
    • Your storm spotter number (note: not all WFOs issue these numbers)
    • Your location and the location of the hazardous weather event (try to be approximate)
    • Type of hazardous weather condition (be descriptive, state only the facts)
    • Time when the event started and the duration
    • Contact information (such as your cell phone number or email)

    Thank you for reading Introduction to the National Skywarn Storm Spotter Program. You are encouraged to share this article with others and on social media to support the creation of this literature. If you are not a member of the Skywarn Storm Spotter Forum, please consider joining today – membership is free to everyone including those who are not storm spotters. Please invite others to join as well. On a final note, be safe out there and thanks again for reading this article.

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