skywarn image Building a Strong Local Spotter Network

Todd Shea
Warning Coordination Meteorologist
National Weather Service La Crosse

Last Updated: 6/9/06


Introduction

During times of hazardous weather, a "ground truth" report is the most important piece of information available. Even with the advent of Doppler Radar, reports from storm spotters remain among the most important data used for issuing local warnings. These reports can directly save lives for your community and assist the mission of the National Weather Service (NWS) by helping us minimize the impact of severe weather on the public.

In plain and simple terms, severe weather warnings tend to be more accurate and timely in areas where good spotter networks are in place. We need to increase the amount of information flowing in from the spotters and rural areas when severe weather is threatening.

This paper will suggest methods for building stronger spotter networks in your area. The Warning Coordination Meteorologist (WCM) at your servicing NWS office can assist with this and highly encourages, supports, and appreciates your efforts. To find the WCM in your area, use this map link (click here).


Evaluating Present Spotter Networks

The first step is to examine your local spotter network(s). Which category listed below does it fall into?

  • I have no spotter network(s).
  • I have a few individuals who may call in a report or two.
  • I have a fairly large spotter network although reports and enthusiasm are limited at times.
  • I have a large spotter network that keeps in good communication and relays frequent and accurate reports.

Spotter networks vary from non-existent to well-organized, experienced groups. The local NWS office works with each spotter network and learns, through the course of a severe weather season, which groups provide good, accurate information.

Once you have evaluated your spotter network, you need to determine your goals for your community. Perhaps you only need some minor work or assistance to strengthen your network, or you may need to take on a whole new approach and rebuild.


Obtaining More Spotters

A storm spotter can be just about anyone, although amateur radio operators and/or volunteer fire department personnel make up a large nucleus of spotters in our region. When searching for additional or new storm spotters, consider the following groups which could be recruited as spotters:

  • Amateur Radio operators
  • Fire department personnel (paid or volunteer)
  • Law enforcement personnel (Sheriff, Police, etc.)
  • Ambulance services
  • City or county workers
  • Public utility workers
  • Postal workers
  • Local citizens / Farmers

Contact as many people and groups as possible to recruit additional storm spotters. This can be done by word of mouth, posting flyers, attending meetings, or using the local media if available.

When recruiting spotters, be sure they have the following characteristics:

  • COMMUNICATIONS - must have a quick and reliable means of relaying information.
  • TRAINING - must be willing to devote time and resources to training.
  • MOBILITY - must be able to position themselves to best and safely view the storm.
  • RELIABILITY - prefer to be available 24 hours a day.
  • ORGANIZATION - should be willing to become organized and work together.

Besides storm spotters, you can also try to establish dedicated and stationary severe weather "contacts" to obtain reports when storms are moving through their area. The NWS commonly uses this in addition to storm spotter networks. "Contacts" are people, such as citizens, that report from their home or business on what type of weather is occurring at their location only. You would be surprised how many people enjoy keeping weather information and passing along their reports. Elements like wind speed, snow depth, hail size, or rainfall amounts from this type of spotter can be vary useful and help fill any gaps in coverage.


Organizing Spotter Groups

Whether you have new interested spotters or an existing group, organization within the spotter network is essential. Each spotter should be informed of their importance in the overall warning process, understand their role in the network, and follow established procedures for reporting. The group will also need to establish or review activation procedures. Organizational meetings are highly encouraged, especially for new spotter groups.

Ideally, you would want all spotters and/or "contacts" to pass along their severe weather report through an Emergency Operations Center (EOC), Net Controller, or dispatch center for your county. The dispatcher or Net Controller can collect reports and pass them along to the NWS so warning decisions can be made as quickly as possible. This method also allows local authorities to make quick decisions regarding the activation of local warning systems if needed.

(Note: Information can be passed along to the NWS via telephone, NAWAS, amateur radio, or point-to-point VHF Radio, if available.)

In rare circumstances, if a central EOC or dispatch center is not available, spotters may contact the NWS directly. Although reports would be received at the NWS rapidly, the shear number of incoming phone calls or radio contacts may bog down local NWS operations during its efforts to issue warnings.


Spotter Training

Once your spotter group is organized, you'll need to provide training. The local NWS offers severe storm spotter training (SKYWARN training) upon request and can teach information ranging from basic introductory material to the latest advanced meteorologic findings about severe storm structure. In fact, no single level of training can be given to all groups because of the wide variety of knowledge and experience among storm spotters.

A spotter training class is essential for new or growing spotter groups. Established spotter groups may only need training every other year. Dispatchers, EOC personnel, and/or Net Controllers are encouraged to attend these training sessions as well so they gain a full understanding of the terminology and the need to relay such information.

Find a friendly and relaxed location for training with plenty of room. A room that is built for public speaking usually works best. Many locations, like community centers, schools, American Legions, volunteer fire fallsetc, are free of charge and welcome this type of use. Having enough space for everyone to attend is very important. The training may be your first impression on the group so make sure it is high quality.

Check our Frequently Asked Questions about the SKYWARN spotter training program. You can also contact your local WCM for more information.


Spotter Network Quality

Nothing can beat pure experience and control when it comes to severe storm spotting. While training is essential, it may take several severe weather seasons for spotter groups to become experienced in what they are seeing and what to report. The EOC personnel, dispatcher, or Net Controller should work closely with the local NWS office in screening reports for accuracy. Less experienced spotters should work with veterans as mentors for at least a season.

Instill a sense of equality - no one group or organization is any better or more qualified than the other. Do not give special privileges or rank. Avoid winers. You may need to clarify who is really in charge since you likely will be working with volunteers.


Maintaining Interest

Once you have established a strong spotter network for your area, you'll want to keep their interest and enthusiasm high. Spotter training sessions can "renew" interest in veteran spotters or excite new spotters. Keep in contact with the group by hosting occasional spotter meetings, attending amateur radio club meetings, firemen association meetings, or trying a spotter appreciation banquet. Recognize local spotters in the media and utilize the more experienced spotters in preparedness outreach activities (i.e. school safety talks, etc.).


Conclusion

Severe storm spotters are the "eyes" of the NWS and local community. Their reports greatly help the overall warning process and can save lives. Having a strong severe storm spotter network in your county is an essential and achievable goal with a little effort, dedication, and long-term commitment.

By following these steps, you can build a stronger spotter program for your community:

  • Evaluate your present spotter network
  • Obtain more spotters or contacts
  • Organize your spotters
  • Provide spotter training
  • Quality control your spotters
  • Maintain their interest

The Warning Coordination Meteorologist at your local NWS office can help you with this entire process. Your National Weather Service and the citizens in your local communities greatly appreciate the effort you put forward toward "Building a Strong Local Spotter Network".


Reference Material

  • Getting Started in Tornado and Thunderstorm Spotting

  • Woodall, Gary, 1995: Development and Training of Spotter Networks. NWS Southern Region Headquarters, Fort Worth, TX.

  • McIntyre, Ernest L., 1995: Establishing and Training Spotter Networks. NWS Southern Region Headquarters, Fort Worth, TX.

  • Carr, Dave: Suggestions for Creating a SKYWARN Spotter System. Olmsted County Emergency Management, Olmsted County, Minnesota.

  • Storm Spotting and Public Awareness Since the First Tornado Forecasts of 1948 (Doswell/Brooks/Moller)



  • USA.gov is the U.S. government's official web portal to all federal, state and local government web resources and services.