As the year's peak storm season is upon us and the wreckage of the tornadoes that struck Oklahoma recently remain fresh in our minds, rest assured that there are well-qualified folks who have their eyes on the skies 24/7 on our behalf.
SKYWARN, a national network of severe weather spotters, is the National Weather Service's first line of defense in keeping the public informed of significant weather situations.
SKYWARN was developed to create a partnership between the NWS and local communities. Since the establishment of the SKYWARN program in the 1970s, the NWS is now able to provide much more accurate and timely information in the event of severe weather such as thunderstorms, tornadoes, hail, flooding and heavy winds.
Tribune Chronicle / Christine Weatherman
SKYWARN liason Art Burnett shows some of the mobile equipment he uses to relay weather information.
NWS warning coordination meteorologist for northern Ohio and northwestern Pennsylvania Gary Garnet says SKYWARN is a tremendous asset to the NWS.
"They confirm what we see with our technology," Garnet said. "You're never really quite sure of what's out there until the spotters give us a reality check."
Art Burnett, a volunteer Mahoning County SKYWARN liaison, has been scanning the skies for many years. After witnessing the area's devastating tornadoes in 1985, Burnett decided he needed to do what he could to help. Licensed as an amateur radio operator in 1994, he soon after decided to become a spotter for SKYWARN.
To learn about becoming a spotter, visit www.skywarn.org or contact your local warning coordination meteorologist through www.stormready.noaa.gov/contact.htm.
"Somebody will be there if there is imminent bad weather," Burnett said of the 120 SKYWARN-trained spotters in Mahoning County.
Along with Trumbull, Geauga, Ashtabula, Lake and Portage counties, Mahoning County is part of SKYWARN District 5 based in Cleveland, one of the six districts that fall under the Cleveland Forecast Office.
According skywarn.org, the main responsibility of a SKYWARN spotter is to identify and describe severe local storms to the NWS. Some weather spotters do this by using HAM radio equipment in their homes or vehicles to get the word out.
Once a spotter sees something to report, they then notify the county "net control" on duty. Net control then calls a regional "net" or active radio, who then notifies the NWS. All this can be done in a matter of seconds.
Spotters without the use of radio may notify the NWS by email or their website or just by calling to report what they've seen and where.
Garnet concurred that there are several methods of weather reporting other than HAM radio, including social media. Burnett's storm reporting equipment includes a 5 watt Yaesu VX7 hand-held radio capable of reaching 25 miles or more, depending on the operator's home antenna system.
On March 20, approximately 90 people attended the annual SKYWARN training session held at Austintown Fitch High School. Of those in attendance, Burnett said 20 were newly interested in becoming SKYWARN spotters.
Although he has been with SKYWARN for almost 20 years, Burnett says he attends training almost every year, as the NWS asks spotters to attend refresher courses every two years "to stay current on what they're looking for."
As one of eight in Mahoning County, Burnett's duties as a net control include a one-week rotation during which they must be "on all the time" or available to take spotter information 24 hours a day. If the net control is unable to monitor the radio for some reason, there is always someone available to cover it.
"When a storm came up a few weeks ago, I was on my way home. We work hand-in-hand," Burnett said.
Burnett says he believes the area hasn't had much in the way of emergency weather situations in recent years.
"We have been extremely fortunate here in Mahoning County with the lack of severe weather," he said. "Tornadoes can happen anywhere, any time of year."
Burnett said that the peak severe weather season typically lasts from April through December.
When asked to recall a particular severe weather incident witnessed, Burnett remembers a charity walking event a few years ago held at Mill Creek Park.
"We were watching the radar, and we had people at home watching the radar," he said. "We got the last people in and had a very severe thunderstorm with hail and high winds."
Burnett said he and a several other spotters at the event were able to warn everyone and get them to safety before the storm hit.
The NWS states that it "encourages anyone with an interest in public service and access to communication, such as ham radio, to join the SKYWARN program." It especially recommends those responsible for protecting others consider become spotters.
Ideal candidates include teachers, emergency medical service workers and police and fire personnel, but any private citizens with a desire to help protect their community are also welcome to participate.
Spotter training classes are free and are conducted by a warning coordination meteorologist of the NWS. They typically last a few hours and include learning the basics of storm structure and development, severe weather safety, and how to identify and report potential severe weather.