Keith Brewster, N0IAW
kbrewster AT ou DOT edu

May, 1996
Updated, July, 2014

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, videotaping 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. The trained spotter can also alert their community to threats from other strong winds, hail, and flash flooding.

 Be a Part of the Solution, Not Part of the Problem

As extreme and thrill-seeking storm chasing has become popularized in movies on "reality" television there is a growing number of storm chasers, including completely untrained locals who have to get out and see the storms they see being warned on television, and the roads are becoming crowded around severe storms. Furthermore, some chasers are creating very dangerous situations through aggressive driving and maneuvering into dangerous positions close to deadly tornadoes. In doing so, such individuals are becoming part of the problem, not part of the solution. By becoming trained in storm spotting and participating in local organized storm spotting and disaster recovery efforts you will become part of the solution.

 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, once known as Civil Defense), is typically the focal point for organizing the spotting activities. Some cities also have an Emergency Manager; this person may also be the city's fire or police chief.

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. Usually a spotter network has a Net Control Station (NCS) who controls the exchange of information by polling the operators, providing weather information to all stations, dispatching operators to key lookout sites on the periphery of a town, and keeping them updated should a site become directly threatened by a storm. Depending on the area to be covered and the range of the repeater, some amateurs may roam a bit, 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 city or county 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. When contacting the NWS 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 a more direct link to hams in the field.

In addition to storm spotting you may want to play a role in assisting with disaster recovery. You can talk to your local emergency manager about training available through FEMA's Citizen Emergency Response Team (CERT) program. Also, the American Red Cross also offers training for their emergency response, which includes weather disasters as well as more localized disasters such as house and apartment fires. The time to act is well before a disaster happens so that you will be properly trained and integrated into an effective team that can be immediately called to action once the need arises.

 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, for some, 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), from W5YI or at local radio supply stores. Generally you'll find hams quite helpful in getting you trained and on the air.

 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 teach the spotters what cloud features 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).

Online training is also available through COMET MetEd. Once you've taken the online course it is still avisable to contact your local Emergency Manager or NWS Warning Coordination Meteorologist so that you can find out about how the storm spotting is done in your area. Your local officials will want to know who you are and about your training and experience.

 Web Resources

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