When you think of SKYWARN, you probably think of incessant amber lighting, car-mounted weather doohickeys, and high-adrenaline chasing of severe weather. But in reality, there is a much more safe- and humble- side to it.

Yesterday, the National Weather Service (NWS) and Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) celebrated their 23rd annual SKYWARN Recognition Day- acknowledging the contributions that volunteer SKYWARN radio operators make to the National Weather Service. We know what the general public’s role in SKYWARN is, but how about Amateur Radio?

Here in Lancaster County, Nebraska, we have a comprehensive, well-oiled Amateur Radio-based SKYWARN system in place. Just under 100 Amateur Radio operators, including myself, are credentialed by the State of Nebraska, recognized by SKYWARN, and voluntarily certified in various areas of FEMA’s Incident Command System. When the threat of inclement weather (not just your summertime severe storms!) presents itself, local emergency management will consult with our lead and a decision to go out may be reached. If that is the case, an alert will be sent to the phones of the credentialed operators, a repeater network springs into action, and real-time lines of communication are established to both emergency management and NWS Omaha. Available operators will then be assigned geographic points throughout the county, then observation and reporting begins.

It was this system and these operators who did something remarkable and true to SKYWARN’s purpose. On December 15th, 2021, an “unprecedented” system made its way through the area, triggering destructive severe thunderstorms and tornadic activity. A callout had occurred, and an operator deployed in the county spotted rotation as it touched down in southwest Lancaster County. Within seconds, the local repeater, connecting the operators, allowed for real-time triangulation of the now-tornado’s position. Emergency Management was alerted by us, and tornado sirens were sounding nearly 5 minutes before the National Weather Service drew up a warning. The observation was relayed to the NWS when the warning was issued, allowing them to confirm a touchdown and increase public knowledge of the danger.

So that is really what SKYWARN is about. To me, at least, there is a clear distinction. Chasers are running into often invisible danger- where Spotters are watching them from the high hilltop a mile away, communicating the danger back to local authorities.

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