Each year in the United States on average we experience 1,000 tornadoes, 10,000 severe thunderstorms and more than 5,000 floods. In 2010 we lost almost 500 lives due to severe weather related incidents and in the last 31 years we have suffered over 750 Billion Dollars in property damage. Property can be repaired or replaced, lost lives can not.
In the 1970s a new program called SKYWARN emerged allowing volunteer weather spotters to relay storm facts to the NWS (National Weather Service) as it happens. With this up-to-the-minute data, severe weather warnings, such as tornadoes, are now issued earlier than before allowing people to take cover and saving lives. You, as a concerned citizen can become a member of SKYWARN and help in saving lives as well, and it's probably a lot easier than you may think.
You don't need a college degree in meteorology, or be a member of a local emergency agency. Training takes just a couple of hours of time and want to help your community, your family and loved ones. The NWS offers training sessions across the country, and schedules are usually posted on your local NWS office website starting in Mid-January. To find out if classes are being held in your area visit the NWS Storm Ready website at http://www.stormready.noaa.gov/contact.htm and click on your state on the map. If you click on the city name that will take you to your local NWS office home page and the schedule will be listed on that page. If you don't see any announcements there, go back to the map and click on the person in charge's name and send them an email asking about classes.
There are two levels of classes, the basic and the advanced and most people never go beyond the basic level, which is all the basic spotter really needs. Normally the classes take about two hours, are informative, educational and a lot of fun. Some of the things you'll learn are how to tell the difference between a funnel cloud and a tornado, different cloud structures associated with severe weather, and which of those clouds are benign and which are indicators of a serious situation. Severe weather data reporting criteria such as wind speed, hailstone size, and rainfall amounts before reporting to your NWS. In the event you spot a tornado, which is an immediate danger to property and lives in your community, report that to 911 first. As a trained spotter you will call 911 and tell them that your are a trained spotter and you've sighted a tornado. If a call comes in from an untrained citizen they may send out a trained observer to verify the sighting before activating the tornado warning sirens. This would waste valuable time and endanger more people in the path of the approaching danger. Currently there are about 290,000 trained SKYWARN spotters in the United States and more are always welcome.
You'll also learn about weather related dangers you are not aware of. How many of us have driven down a road and came across a flooded roadway? You'll probably look at the water and try to decide if it's shallow enough to drive through. The NWS has a slogan about flooded roadways, "Turn Around Don't Drown", heed it! It only takes six inches of water flowing at two miles per hour to sweep vehicles, including SUVs off the roadway. If that water is part of a stream or river you could find yourself being swept downstream with no chance of escape or rescue.
With the recent popularity of reality shows on cable many of us have seen a variety of "Storm Chasing" shows come to the forefront. As a storm spotter this is NOT what you'll be doing, you'll be observing the weather from your home or "SAFE" vantage point. Chasing tornadoes is dangerous and best left to those who are knowledgable and educated about the details of tornadic activity. I've been involved with SKYWARN for years now and I'm a member of our local Amateur Radio SKYWARN group. Last spring I was out shopping when a warning siren started to sound alerting me that a tornado was sighted. I immediately returned to my car and turned on my Ham Radio and heard that a member of our group had spotted the tornado and was reporting important data to the local NWS. I started scanning the skies near my location, which was about fifteen miles NW of the current tornado and saw a wall cloud, which is a cloud structure where tornadoes may develop. The structure was to my southwest and there was a lot of precipitation falling on its northern border so I couldn't see any structures under it, where a tornado would be located. I decided to move to the south of this storm and look at it from that side, where no to little rain was falling. I severely underestimated the speed of this storm and ended up being hit by it before I was able to pass by the front edge of the storm. The rain was blowing sideways due to the high wind associated with it, and I could only see a couple of feet in front of my windshield with the wipers going full speed. I did make my way safely off the side of the road and using my handheld anemometer measured the wind speed at 105 miles per hour. I later found out a verified tornado touched down less than a quarter-mile from where I was at that time. It was a valuable lesson for me, and I'm happy it wasn't my last lesson.
After you receive your training you may wonder what kind of equipment you'll need to collect the data you need to send to the NWS. The most important things you'll need is the training and your eyes and other senses. Additional things that will help are a pen and paper, clock or watch, and ruler. The NWS wants your accurate data so keep track of your location and time and measurements. If you report it is hailing don't say something like its "Marble Size" hail. What size marble are you talking about? There are little marbles and big marbles and if you have a ruler you can measure it and give them an exact size. After you've been spotting for a while you may want to refine and add to your tools so some of the things I would recommend, and carry myself are these items. Calipers, which accurately measure the diameter of an object, which range in price from cheap to expensive. I carry two pair one is plastic and one is digital. I picked both up at a local discount hardware store and paid less than two dollars for the plastic one and ten dollars for the digital one. I carry both because batteries go bad and make the digital one unusable. I also have a handheld wind anemometer which measures wind speed. There are two kinds available, one is a vane type and the other a cup type. The vane type is pointed directly at the wind or it's measurement is not exact, while the cup type only needs the wind to hit the cups. There is a wide price range from fairly cheap for the vane type starting around twenty-five dollars with some exceeding one thousand dollars.
Remember this is a volunteer program, so you'll never get rich doing it. There will be no parades held in your honor and most likely you will never receive public praise or acknowledgment regarding your part in protecting your community. As an important part of the SKYWARN program what you do is IMPORTANT! Every bit of information you pass along, every observation you make and report, every second your eyes focus on the skies every other person in your community is a little safer.