By Jay Farlow, W9LW, Quadrant 2 Director, IMO SKYWARN
Are ham radio SKYWARN spotters becoming irrelevant, the way that ubiquitous cell phones reduced the importance of repeater autopatches? Comments at a recent meeting hosted by the Northern Indiana National Weather Service could lead one to believe that answer is, “Perhaps.”
The Northern Indiana NWS weather forecast office conducted a workshop October 17 for its Integrated Warning Team (IWT). By NWS definition, an IWT includes the local NWS office, news media and emergency management community. The purpose of the workshop was to find ways to increase data sharing between the three components of the IWT. Representatives of each of the three IWT segments gave presentations on their needs. The comments of the NWS representatives were particularly interesting.
“The only way we really know what’s going on is when we get that ground truth report,” said an NWS presenter. Unfortunately, the NWS is not receiving enough timely reports from its trained spotters. An NWS representative expressed frustration at seeing significant radar data in an area where he knew trained spotters lived but getting no reports.
When reports don’t arrive via traditional means (like ham radio, or messages from emergency officials), the NWS has no choice but to search elsewhere for information. It has started searching on social media networks like Facebook and especially Twitter. It turns out that users of social media often write about the weather they see, because they believe their friends and followers are interested. Members of the IWT acknowledged that most such reports come from people without any weather training. But many social media users send their updates from camera-equipped smart phones and include photos with their reports.
“One picture of a funnel cloud is better than 10 reports from trained spotters,” an NWS representative said.
Does that mean ham radio operators should abandon SKYWARN nets? Perhaps not. But it might be wise to take steps to improve the value of our service. Here are some ideas to consider:
· Education. By learning all we can about meteorology, we can assure that all our reports are valid and valuable.
· Technology. By becoming familiar with and using other technologies to supplement ham radio (e.g. tweeting photos from smart phones), we can provide a more complete service while demonstrating our ability to stay on the “cutting edge.”
· Procedures. By insisting on sounding as professional as possible when we communicate, we can build credibility among any IWT members who monitor or receive our reports.
In upcoming articles, I’ll share more ideas along these lines, especially ways to gain more education and use technology.