Preparedness & Recovery

Storm Spotters Are Critical for Weather Safety

Spotters are the eyes on the skies and feet on the ground for the National Weather Service.

by Michelle Gaitan, McClatchy News / March 6, 2014

It is not uncommon for Texas to experience drastic weather changes, but helping communities stay vigilant when a storm develops makes all the difference in protecting lives and property.

To that end, the National Weather Service created the volunteer program Skywarn, which relies on trained storm spotters to provide it with accurate weather information.

Spotters are the eyes on the skies and feet on the ground for the NWS, identifying and observing tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and other hazardous weather conditions as they develop.

"They help us by providing timely and accurate weather reports any time there are storms in our area," said Hector Guerrero, meteorologist for the NWS in San Angelo. "We include their reports in our warnings and follow-ups to the public."

The San Angelo NWS covers 24 counties and has more than 1,500 trained spotters. Skywarn has more than 290,000 spotters nationwide.

The NWS talks with spotters, some of whom are licensed ham radio operators, and exchanges information to send out weather warnings and watches.

"This information helps save lives," Guerrero said.

The NWS reports an average of 10,000 severe thunderstorms, 5,000 floods and more than 1,000 tornadoes yearly across the U.S.

Steve Mild, emergency management coordinator for Tom Green County, has been a spotter for 15 years and knows firsthand how important the job is in a weather-related emergency.

"They're critical," Mild said. "Radar gives the weather service kind of an idea, but it's not specific real-time [information]."

Mild said the NWS benefits from spotters because it is able to compare information received from its Doppler radar to weather conditions being reported.

"A tornado doesn't just fall out of the sky," Mild said. "Things happen before -- heavy rain, hail and winds pick up." Spotters provide "exact weather conditions in real time."

The NWS annually offers a free spotter training course. This year's course is sponsored by the Amateur Radio Emergency Service just in time for Severe Weather Awareness Preparedness Week, which ends Saturday.

The course is from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at Trinity Lutheran Church and is open to the public.

"The training is going to tell the audience what to look for in the sky and what part of the storm they really need to watch to interpret what they are seeing," said Matt Healy, public information officer for the San Angelo Amateur Radio Club. "What surprises most people is it's not looking at a cloud and telling the weather service, 'I have hail here.' It's watching the storm over a few minutes, or 10 to 15 minutes, because the characteristics totally change."

Healy said correctly identifying cloud formations is key to providing the NWS with accurate information that can help save lives.

"The class actually teaches the participants where in the storm they are going to find these clouds," Healy said. "When you call the weather service with a storm report, you always identify yourself as a trained storm spotter because your report is a whole lot more valid than someone just calling in saying, 'Well, I think I see something.' "

Spotters and ham radio operators volunteer their time keeping track of hazardous weather conditions, but they are not to be confused with storm chasers, Healy said.

"We don't chase storms, and we take safety very seriously," Healy said.

Safety is a priority for all spotters who volunteer their time and incur expenses.

The NWS is able to track spotters and ham radio operators who are out in the field to warn them if and when hazardous weather poses a threat.

Costs depend on how much the spotter chooses to spend on equipment, gas and travel expenses, said David Eaton, who has been a storm spotter for more than 30 years.

"We don't make money doing it," Eaton said. "It's a passion and a hobby."

Eaton said that despite the dangers, he takes pleasure in the results.

"It can be very rewarding to help a community stay safe," Eaton said. "It's also rewarding to see what Mother Nature can and has produced."

(c)2014 the San Angelo Standard-Times (San Angelo, Texas)