The North American Monsoon Season will begin on June 15 and will run through September 30. For those that just completed their basic SKYWARN training I thought this would be an opportune time to talk about some of the things weather spotters should do and have in their possession while out spotting storms. As you have found out the training does not talk about how amateur radio is used during spotting. I am in no way suggesting that you should rush out and purchase all the equipment I am about to mention in these articles. They are nice to have items that would help you out.
Safety is of course first and foremost in weather spotting. Always pick a vantage point where you are not in the path of the storm. Keep a safe distance from the storm. Have a map of the area available to determine the best escape route in case the storm changes course. The best vantage point is on the right rear flank of the storm. From this vantage point the spotter can see what is coming behind the current storm. Unfortunately, we in the desert southwest cannot always have this vantage point due to the Mexican border.
Form a team of two people. One is the driver and concentrates only on driving and the road conditions. The other person is the navigator, spotter, and radio operator. The radio operator should always be in contact with the net control station if a net is in progress. Otherwise, it would be a good idea to have a fixed station on frequency that is aware spotters are in the field and near the storm. The net control station or fixed station should also have a radar image available and can warn the mobile spotters in the field of possible storms coming up behind them.
Our station out at the El Paso NWS can handle HF, UHF/VHF FM, or UHF/VHF Digital (D-Star) reports.
Having an APRS tracker in the vehicle is another asset. This way we at the NWS can track your location on APRS.FI while in the field.
The D-Star mode brings some capabilities that are unique to the nets. We can use the same radio to receive voice reports and run D-RATS to send/receive low speed data spotter report forms and attach photos to the form. D-Star also has its own form of APRS called D-PRS so we can follow the spotters with D-Star radios in the field on the Internet. A word of advice when using D-PRS set the radio to beacon position information only when the PTT is depressed. As net control operators at the NWS we are only interested in the position you are in while on site. We will see the bread crumb droppings as you key the radio and report while in route. We can determine your path and have your back. D-Star does not necessarily have to have the Internet present. It also works great simplex or over a local D-Star repeater. However, D-Star can be used to quickly setup a wide-area network with the use of the Internet and reflectors. This would be especially effective in situations such as tornados where getting reports back to the state capital would be important. D-RATS has a map which is provided by Thunderforest Maps (https://www.thunderforest.com). There are different overlays that can be displayed. One is the Landscape and this overlay shows contour lines. Tell D-RATS that an external GPS receiver is attached eliminates the guess work as to exactly where you really are. It will read the coordinates from the GPS and insert them in the report form for you.
Have navigational aids such as a Magellan or Garmin GPS unit for the vehicle, and an up to date regular paper map as a backup is a good idea. City and county maps will assist in finding escape routes. Topographical maps provide contour lines and elevation that can assist in determining a suitable location to spot from. Google Earth maps are current maps for the laptops.
Cell phones for text messaging and having a Twitter account is also a good idea for notifying directly to the NWS. Seeing as how the NWS is using social media now. Cell phones can keep spotters aware of the latest watches and warnings put out by the NWS. Having an app on the phone such as Weather Bug or something similar will also give the spotter a radar image to look at to determine what is coming behind the current storm. It can also tell the spotter what towns or cities might be in the storm’s path. The cell phone can also double as a still photo camera or can be used as a video camera. Pictures speak a thousand words as they say.
Having a handheld anemometer will come in handy for taking wind speed readings. The handheld units also provide much more information as well. Plus, some of them will upload the data to a laptop and sending this information as an attachment using D-RATS to the NWS would be useful as well.
Another good tool to have in the toolbox is a good strong pair of binoculars. They will help in viewing the cloud rotation or a better look at other parts of the cloud.
Go-Kits…just the same as in EMCOMM, weather spotters should have a go-kit that is taken every time a spotter goes mobile. Plan from a few hours up to a few days just in case. This go-kit is especially built for storm spotting. I would recommend looking at the ARRL Operating Manual in the Emergency Communication Chapter for a list on items to have in the Go-Kit but, tailor it for storm spotting.
I have mentioned a lot of the equipment that would be found in the go-kit above. But, just as with EMCOMM there should be personal items, medications, blankets, water, first aid kits, items for the vehicle, spare batteries, flashlight, and a copy of the Basic and/or Advanced Spotters Guide. Keep the vehicle ready for emergencies. Have a set of jumper cables and a shovel on board. If a handheld radio is taken have spare dry cell batteries on hand. Purchase the dry cell battery pack for the radio. When the rechargeable batteries go dead in the field there is not anywhere to recharge them.
Keep reading. Next month we will discuss what spotters should do during pre-activation. In August we will discuss the activation, and we will discuss post- activation.
Questions and comments concerning this article are always welcome and encouraged. Send an email to the address shown below.
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Lew Maxwell. KB5HPT
DEC, District 6, WTX Section