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Program trains community to become storm watchers

Much of a farmer’s work is dependent upon the weather with them looking to the radar to determine the work for the day. But how correct are the radars during possible unstable weather conditions? According to Michael Lewis, a Warning Coordination Meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) Northern Indiana office, there are times when the radars miss storms.

“The radar is very powerful but it has its own limitations,” Lewis said. “One of the limitations is that the radar beam will go up and miss the storm because the earth is curved away.”

Radars also miss the ground action though it does identify the movement. But it has been found that, while people respect radar reports, they respond more readily to spotter’s data. Therefore, NWS warnings plus ground truth equals public action, meaning that communities are more responsive when their neighbors share the information they have collected. This also means that there is more need for storm spotters.

NWS has a program that trains community members to watch for signs of dangerous weather in their area and how to report their sightings to the agency. It is simply called Spotter Training and it is in cooperation with local Emergency Management departments of county Sheriff’s offices. This two hour presentation exposes participants to various types of storms appropriate for their area, how to identify them, and what information needs to be shared with NWS. For example, a workshop held in St. Joseph County (MI) focused on tornadoes.

Lewis shared the importance of spotter’s reports and how they affect the different NWS partners, such as television stations, Community Emergency Response Teams, State Police, Amateur Radio Emergency Service, and the Department of Homeland Security at the federal level. These reports “provide a consistent message, convey impact and urgency, encourage public action, and minimize loss  and facilitate recovery” to these connected organizations.

The talk began with a description of thunderstorms that included the ingredients moisture, instability, lift or trigger, and wind shear, which only occurs during severe storms. The “life cycle” of a thunderstorm usually lasts approximately 30 minutes and has three stages: developing, mature, and dissipating. An extensive discussion of each was shared along with explanations about single, multi-cell, and supercell thunderstorms.

The hazards of these storms were expounded upon with warnings to avoid them even if the storm seems far away. Straight line winds, hail, flash flooding, lightning, and tornadoes were explained as well as what caused the dangerous effects. While information concerning the storms was important, safety was strongly encouraged.

The second half of the workshop was devoted to proper recording and reporting. The participants can turn in data via social media, telephones, email, special weather reporting apps, and ham radios. The acronym T.E.L. was emphasized as it reminds the spotters of the pertinent information they need to share. Time is answered with when and is it still going while Event is more descriptive like size of the hail in comparison to sports balls and coins. The last letter represents Location and they need the spotter to be as specific as possible. These are the basic guidelines for the spotters, giving them an outline for their report.

After a time of questions, the participants were given a quiz that they could participate in with their Smartphones by texting. This was a small sample of the questions given in the true test for spotters.

For more information about the spotters training programs, check the NWS website at Another extensive online resource is