SKYWARN Training, and a Word of Advice About Amber Lights

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).

Todd Krause, KBØSGH, Warning Coordination Meteorologist with the National Weather Service, giving SKYWARN training in 2008. (Photo obtained from

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.

Todd Mitchell, NØIP, is a regular contributor to and writes from Minnesota, USA. He can be contacted at [email protected].

4 Responses to “SKYWARN Training, and a Word of Advice About Amber Lights”

  • Mike KA7PLE:

    Well written article, and I agree. The “Bling” dose not make our jobs as hams any better. I draw enough (too much) attention with just the antenna’s on my car. Putting lights and stickers all over your vehicle wont help you identify an approaching storm, nor will it help communicate the information about said storm. In my opinion if you are in a location that requires you to have flashing lights, then you are probably in a dangerous situation and you should look for a safer place to make your report. As a Skywarn spotter, I feel my job is to report adverse weather, or other natural disasters, as effectively and accurately as I can. If I’m in a dangerous place, I can’t do that, or should not do that. I should be worried about my own safety and the safety of others first.
    My advice is spend the money on better radio gear and leave the flashing lights to the Emergency response folks who truly need them.
    I also agree that a skywarn sticker is enough to identify who you are and what you are doing. If people are curious, they will ask, and I usually respond as professionally as I can, answering their questions. And maybe it will lead to a new ham in our ranks.
    In my experience “Bling” is for showboating. And should be used sparingly.

    Just my .02 worth,

    73 everyone

  • Mohhamand UNIT-105:

    You people are ridiculous..!! Who are you to tell us what we can & Can’t put onto our vehicles.. I believe that the SKYWARN STORM SPOTTERS and or CHASERS should have AMBER Strobe lights on their vehicles as they are engaged in a HAZARDOUS ACTIVITY,and as for the SKYWARN STORM SPOTTER magnets or stickers on your vehicle that is fine people would like to know what you’re doing and it will get others to be curious about SKYWARN and possibily join the organization also alot of the SKYWARN STORM SPOTTERS are either involved in their local emergency management agency whether it be thru CERT or ARES OR RACES, ALL VEHICLES WHETHER PERSONAL VEHICLES OR AUTHORITY VEHICLES SHOULD HAVE LIGHTS AND ID’S ON THEM WHILE ENGAGED IN HAZARDOUS ACTIVITIES, If you people don’t like the sight of others using lights or id’s on their vehicles then simply ignore them and move on with your own business…..!!!!

  • Todd Mitchell, NØIP:

    You have the right to put anything you like on your vehicle, sir. And you are also right that if you aren’t a humble, teachable person and you insist on continuing with this embarrassing behavior then all we can do is ignore it and move on with our own business.

    Unfortunately for us, other people who see you will get a bad impression of SKYWARN and perhaps ham radio in general — so this isn’t just about what I do or don’t want to see, myself. It is about professionalism and representing well a program and a hobby that is bigger than your own ego.



  • Mohhamand UNIT-105:

    You Mr. Todd seem to be missing the point, SKYWARN is protecting and serving your community by doing weather obeservations and it’s a hazardous activity, How is being a SKYWARN STORM SPOTTER with amber lights on your vehicle unproffessional? Amber lights have completly nothing to do with Amateur Radio, and you do not know me or my spotting style, I do not have any radar detectors in my car like most do and I most certaintly obey the traffic laws as I have a CDL license and don’t wanna lose that.. I believe you’re the one with the big ego that thinks can push people around.. I mean this whole subject is ridiculous, Just obey your states laws on amber lights and my state says YES to amber lights as we’re engaged in hazardous activity……….

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