SKYWARN article: Plano TX

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Apr 20, 2003
Sand Springs OK

If someone were to ask you to take your car out on a stormy spring evening, with every expectation that you could soon be in the midst of golf ball-sized hail pelting the finish, not to mention the possibility of broken glass and the danger to your own personal safety, what would you say? Now consider that in order to “enjoy” such an outing, you would have to take special training annually and spend many hours of your free time studying for a communications license as well.

If you say, “No thank you!” then you are among the people who benefit from the volunteers who say “Yes!” to the call to become severe weather watchers, more romantically referred to by the media as storm or tornado trackers, as part of the National Weather Services SKYWARN network.

“Simply put, the SKYWARN volunteer acts as our eyes and ears,” explains meteorologist Gary Woodall of National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service office in Ft. Worth, where all SKYWARN observations are reported. “The SKYWARN storm spotters are a valuable part of the severe weather detection and warning system. While our electronic tools, radar, satellite, etc., are important tools, they cannot show the visual aspects of a storm. Additionally, they cannot and do not tell us what is actually happening at the ground underneath a storm. SKYWARN spotters provide visual observations of storm structure and the near-storm environment. These observations complement the electronic data and allow us to have a more complete picture of a storm. This, in turn, allows us to issue the best possible warnings.

“Amateur radio operators (HAMS) make up the backbone of the Texas spotter networks. These groups have the traits most needed for successful spotter groups: efficient communications, dedication and a sense of community service, trainability, and ability to be integrated into the area-wide reporting system,” Woodall notes.

Every county has their own SKYWARN system, all linked in North Texas to the Ft. Worth weather service, as well as local emergency managers. While each county does things slightly differently, usually dictated by budget constraints, the core system is designed so that a SKYWARN volunteer from Vermont or Missouri could perform well in Texas. The basic training, a one-day class that storm spotters must attend annually, is the key to the system’s flexibility. Secondary training in advanced weather spotting are also offered by the weather service every winter, which is historically the system’s most quiet period.

In some North Texas counties, emergency coordinators have installed ham radio gear in police dispatch centers, where a ham operator will respond when the SKYWARN system is activated. In another county, the hams themselves have installed a high-power remote camera system on a hilltop for observation, and in others hams have created their own Doppler radar systems for local reporting. All of these innovations get no federal support whatsoever. The two-way radio equipment the volunteers rely upon, even the cost of the gasoline they use, is paid for out of pocket. Yet the program maintains a robust volunteer cadre of well-trained spotters.

SKYWARN hams also spend a significant amount of time helping to train new volunteers to earn their Amateur Radio license from the Federal Communications Commission. Becoming a ham requires a basic understanding of electronics and radio theory, as well as FCC laws. And while there are now operator levels that no longer require Morse code proficiency as part of the testing procedure, the program still requires a commitment by both instructors and students to qualify. SKYWARN does not require that new volunteers be licensed radio operators to join; many nonlicensed volunteers begin their storm spotting careers riding the “shotgun” or “second seat” with licensed operators after taking the one-day SKYWARN schools.

As one volunteer notes, “Once you are out there, you want to work the radio, which is the only part of the job that requires an FCC license. Almost everyone makes the transition quickly. It’s not all that difficult, and ham radio has a lot more to offer in addition to the SKYWARN activities.” In fact, the paid meteorologists with NOAA in Ft. Worth, like their counterparts in other hub weather service offices, have voluntarily become hams over the years.

The choice of the ham radio community to undertake this job from the beginning has sometimes come into question. At one recent SKYWARN training class, a member of the public asked a Weather Service representative, “Why are you trusting this important function to a group that willingly accepts the title ‘Amateur’ as their name?” The answer is simple. While the amateur radio operators are volunteers and their activities could be considered a hobby, they have the technical training behind them as a benchmark for admission.

In fact, when that civilian asked his question, what he really wanted to know was why the job does not immediately go to professionals, such as the police or firefighters. The answer is equally simple; in times of severe emergencies, the police and fire departments are already busy dealing with rescue and emergency response issues, and in a true emergency, have other important jobs to perform. The ham radio community is perfectly suited for the storm spotter job, with knowledge of communications and emergency radio traffic; and in most cases they will not be torn between their activities in SKYWARN and other emergency management needs.

In Collin County, SKYWARN has in excess of over 200 trained volunteers, both men and women ranging in age from teenagers to octogenarians, who responded to a half dozen potential weather-related emergencies last year. Directing these activities is Ted Best, the severe weather coordinator for the county through the Collin County Amateur Radio Emergency Service. He explains that an average year sees anywhere from six to 18 severe storms in our area.

Veteran news weatherman Troy Dungan, who routinely attends SKYWARN training sessions, notes, “Rule number one is that severe weather can happen anywhere – and will. It can hit an affluent suburb, a small country crossroads, or a major metropolitan area with equal devastation. Some volunteers have never seen a tornado; others have come face to face with one their first time out. The training prepares them to approach potentially dangerous super cells with a minimum of danger and to keep their distance, but sometimes you can’t predict a storm’s sudden turn. I guess the rule would be, if you are getting hit with baseball-sized hail, you should quickly reevaluate your position and retreat.”

Ted Best explains, “SKYWARN relies on several ‘repeater sites’ that allow low-power mobile or hand-held radio units to communicate effectively over long distances. All of our repeaters are capable of maintaining communications with the National Weather Service Center in Ft. Worth. Our main site is in Plano, with another in Allen.

“Virtually all of our volunteers can operate in the field or man their own base stations throughout the county. Many have elaborate weather stations of their own and constantly feed back changing conditions to both the spotters and the weather service. In all, there are six affiliated clubs in Collin County that participate in SKYWARN, each with their own repeater systems available for our use. The network guarantees the best possible early warning system for the county’s residents and vastly improves the warning time given for an approaching storm.”

The storms that SKYWARN tracks are not limited to tornadoes – although they all have that potential. But the spotters are all eager to share the fact that more folks are killed each year by lightning and sudden flooding here in Texas than by twisters.

As one storm spotter says, “Any of these storms can produce direct line winds in excess of 100 miles per hour; there is no funnel cloud, just straight winds, but it will take down a house or barn just as easily. There is a hail potential, sometimes the size of a baseball or even a softball, that will destroy a car and break out windows, too. But the worst killer is the flash flooding. Every year somebody tries to drive through a flooded area and will pay with their life.

“The second largest killer associated with these storms is lightning. Every severe storm is associated with lightning and thunder. That is our signal to get out in the field – but that lightning can kill you. Lightning strikes the closest protruding object from the surrounding area. The safest place to be is in your car; cars are not ‘grounded’ because they are sitting on rubber tires, so they will not be hit. But wherever you are, get down low, close to the ground. You will have a better chance at survival lying in a ditch than standing on the patio!”

All of the storm spotters in SKYWARN stress that early detection and warning are the overall key to survival. To that end, if you are not listening to the weather warnings on TV or radio, and do not have an inexpensive NOAA Weather Radio to hear a warning, the efforts of these volunteers are useless.

Troy Dungan adds, “Get a weather radio for your home, turn on the TV when you see the sky turning dark, and pay attention. You have to know where the ‘safe room’ is in your home – usually an interior bathroom without windows – and be prepared to go to it when the broadcast gives the word. A NOAA Weather radio cost about $20 or less, the same as the average smoke detector. That is a small amount to pay for your safety, especially when you realize that the volunteers who are out there in the storm have invested hundreds, if not thousands, for their equipment to keep you safe. Remember, nature never does it the same way twice. There are few common denominators, which is why SKYWARN is so important to all of us!”

Journalist Rick Moran is also a SKYWARN volunteer.

Good, factual article with solid info on the Ham Radio support given for public service in Tornado Alley.


Jul 24, 2005
I went through the training via my department after we had a number of tornados hit some small communities east of our city. We were sponsored by our department, but I believe that any citizen can get the same training without a sponsor. Check with you local NOAA weather station to see about training in your area. The training is very informative whether you would become a volunteer or not.

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