Over the last 30 years I’ve attended quite a few SKYWARN Storm Spotter training sessions, and I’ve always found the time well-spent. When I lived in the Twin Cities, Metro SKYWARN was simply part of being an amateur radio operator — there, SKYWARN is primarily a ham radio operation, and I got involved when I was a teenager. Later as a police officer I attended SKYWARN training in that capacity, but it was obvious that cops and firefighters weren’t nearly as effective as the ham radio operators who formed the well-oiled machine of Metro SKYWARN.
It’s a bit different out here in rural Minnesota. While some parts of rural Minnesota are connected via a hub-and-spoke repeater system to KØMPX — located right in the Chanhassen office of the NWS — such is not yet the case here in Granite Falls. Out here the well-oiled machine of storm spotters is the local fire department. Until we get the local repeater EchoLinked to KØMPX, ham radio operators must rely upon their cell phones to call in storm reports (unless of course they’re firefighters, who have their own radio net).
In any case SKYWARN training does come to our small town, thanks to the tireless efforts of Mr. Todd Krause, KBØSGH, a true gentleman and an excellent teacher. He’s on the road quite a bit in the spring of each year, putting on storm spotter classes all over Minnesota. Our class was two days ago, from 7:00-9:00 P.M., and the room was packed!
If you haven’t attended a SKYWARN class, or if it’s been a while since you have, I encourage you to find a training session near you (click here) and attend. This is the time of the year when these classes are offered, but we’re nearing the end of this year’s schedule — you’ll want to act quickly. In my experience you’ll need to attend this training more than once to really get the hang of it. It’s easy to identify the features of a storm by looking at pictures in the classroom, with the instructor right there to help you, but it’s much more difficult to do so out in the field. This class will help you distinguish between what really matters and what merely looks scary as you look up into the sky. More than once I’ve been with untrained people who freak out because of a scary-looking cloud, e.g. a rapidly rotating shelf cloud, and I’ve been able to calm them down by explaining what’s really happening.
One word of advice — if you do get into SKYWARN spotting, don’t go nuts decking out your car with amber lights and cheesy stickers/decals, okay? Even untrained observers know that stuff is for your ego, not for your storm spotting. They’re not impressed; they’re rolling their eyes. I don’t want to embarrass anybody in particular so I won’t provide any links, but a little Googling will show you how silly some storm spotters can be. I just saw one a few weeks ago with a bunch of amber lights on the rear deck of his car along with SKYWARN stickers and other home-made stickers proclaiming to the world that he is a Very Important Person as an Officially Certified Storm Spotter. Truly cringe-worthy! If you have this stuff, would you mind removing it? Maybe one SKYWARN sticker isn’t such a bad idea, but the other stuff is an embarrassment to the rest of us.
When I was a police officer I had all sorts of insignia and lights on my patrol car, but guess how much of it helped me when storm-spotting (with my 2m HT in my hand)? None of it. Ever. Flashing lights (including amber ones) can snarl traffic and even cause accidents if you use them, whether you’re driving or pulled over. Unless they’re absolutely necessary, they shouldn’t be used at all — and when it comes to storm-spotting, they’re almost never necessary. If you’re going to do your storm spotting from your car, drive the speed limit, obey all traffic laws, find a good vantage point where you can park safely, and you won’t even need the four-way flashers that came with your car.