VALLEY, Nebraska — While Brian Smith and his fellow meteorologists have access to all sorts of gadgets to help predict storms, they still rely on a group of volunteers who are their eyes in the field.
Smith serves as the warning coordinator for the National Weather Service office near here. The Valley office covers eight counties in western Iowa (Monona, Harrison, Shelby, Pottawattamie, Mills, Montgomery, Fremont and Page) along with 30 counties in eastern Nebraska.
Each winter and spring, Smith and his colleagues will conduct storm spotter training classes at various locations in their coverage area. The classes are designed to educate the public about severe weather and how they can help potentially save lives.
“What we are doing is helping them understand cloud formations and things like that, something that could potentially produce a tornado,” Smith says.
While it’s not required, many spotters will take that education out in the field to help with the weather service’s storm prediction system.
Smith says the first session is 60 to 90 minutes, and that session can be followed up with a more advanced class.
“Basic training is going to cover the thunderstorm basics and the different hazards associated with a storm,” he says. “The class will look hard at those super cell thunderstorms that produce most tornadoes.”
Trained spotters who choose to go out in the field are also taught how to contact the weather service, including taking photos to send in to the office staff.
“We encourage folks to send us photos of storms, hail, things like that,” Smith says. “It really helps us out quite a bit.”
The advanced class looks at things like comparing shelf clouds to wall clouds.
“The shelf cloud is the front edge of the storm, while tornadoes will come from the wall clouds,” Smith says. “We will also look at cloud rotation, and whether it’s a funnel cloud or a tornado.”
He says there are some organized storm spotter groups in the area, and many use amateur radio to communicate with the weather service and each other. Local law enforcement officers are also vital when it comes to storm conditions, Smith adds.
Spotters are also taught safety, he says. They are told to stay at least 1.5 to 2 miles away from a potential tornado.
“Watch for the rotation, and if you see that, then call it in to us,” Smith says. “Watch for that funnel and be safe.”
He says with the advancements in technology, predicting storms has been more accurate, although he says when it comes to weather, it’s never completely predictable.
“The main goal for us is to provide decision support to local agencies,” Smith says. “With the technology we have along with the spotters, we are able to do that.”
He says roughly 1,000 to 1,500 people go through storm spotter training every year. A refresher course is required every three years.
“We probably have about 2,500 trained spotters out there,” Smith says.
“It’s really very informative and very important,” Smith says. “We’d love to have more people become part of this network.”