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What is SKYWARN?

SKYWARN is the name given to a program sponsored by the US National Weather Service. The program is made up of thousands of who volunteers attend regular training and then spend hours scanning the skies of their communities looking for signs of meteorological mayhem. These volunteers, usually organized under the SKYWARN banner in the USA or CANWARN in Canada, are trained by weather service forecasters to be the eyes and ears (and skin) of the warning forecasters.

Most volunteers are just regular folks, some with an avid interest in the weather and many without. Some are law enforcement officers, firefighters, EMS or Emergency Management personnel. All share a sense of responibility to their neighbors.

Charles Doswell, Alan Moler, and Harold Brooks cover the topic of storm spotting (in the context of the Integrated Warning System) in an excellent paper entitled Storm Spotting and Public Awareness Since the First Tornado Forecasts of 1948.

What about all those new sensors the National Weather Service recently installed? Don't tell me they don't work!

Not at all! The now complete network of WSR88D (Weather Surveillance Radar, 1988, Doppler) radars is functioning quite well and has saved many lives. However, the system can not detect every tornado nor was it designed to do so. For this reason, spotters in the field are used to provide invaluable "ground truth" information to verify and enhance what forecasters see on their radar console.

How do I become a storm spotter?

The easiest way to become involved to contact your regional National Weather Service office's Warning Coordination Meteorologist (WCM). The WCM acts as the liason between the forecast office and local emergency management and spotters. Contact information for your local forecast office can be found in the Blue Pages of your local telephone directory or at the National Weather Service website.

In some areas, the programs are run directly from the office itself; in other areas, programs are run by county or municipal authorities and sometimes, even by citizen groups, such as amateur radio clubs. Whichever model is used, the local WCM will be able to provide contact information for a given area. The WCM is also the one that oversees the meteorological aspects of spotter training.

For a general overview of storm spotting, meteorologist and volunteer storm spotter, Keith Brewster, has written a brief guide to Getting Started in Tornado and Thunderstorm Spotting . Todd Sherman, KB4MHH, Coordinator of Alachua County, Florida, SKYWARN program, has published a comprehensive Index to SKYWARN Web Pages On The Internet.

I've signed up to take a spotter class from my local NWS Forecast Office, but it's not until next week. Are there any sources of training material online?

You'd likely have been surprised if the answer were "no"! There are many good training sites on the net, a few of which are listed below. There is, however, one caveat: None of the pages listed below are meant to be a substitute for official storm spotter training. Contact your local NWS office for details on spotter training in your area.

Don't I need to be a "ham" to be a spotter?

Won't I have to learn Morse Code?

No site dedicated to SKYWARN activities would be worth the bandwidth if it didn't inculde a section about communications. After all, communicating -- getting severe weather observations from the field to the forecaster or emergency manager and then out to the public -- is what the SKYWARN program is all about!

In answer to the question "do I need to be a ham to be a spotter?" the answer would have to be "no, but it sure helps!". Many, but not all, SKYWARN programs use Amateur Radio to relay information from the field to the weather service forecasters and emergency managers. Some programs use the General Mobile Radio Service, while others use public safety radio systems such as police and fire systems.

And about Morse Code? That went out with the 20th Century! Entry-level amateur radio licenses haven't required Morse Code knowledge since 1991.

The ARRL -- the national organization for Amateur Radio in the United States -- has been helping "hams" get started since 1914. Their website has a good section on becoming a licensed amateur radio operator, including a list of frequently asked questions and their answers. The ARRL also has a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Weather Service concerning severe weather spotting.

Keith Brewster, NØIAW, maintains a Weather Spotting Frequency List. In addition to Amateur Radio Service frequencies, many other frequencies are listed as well.

Last Update: 2006-04-14 @ 17:53:47 EDT