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Storm Spotter Safety: Your #1 Priority

Accurate and timely spotter reports are critical to our local community and to the National Weather Service.  However, your first priority as a storm spotter is to STAY SAFE!  Severe storms present a number of hazards, any of which could lead to injury or death if you’re not extremely careful.  Depending on whether you are spotting from your vehicle or from a fixed location (like a home or business), there are hazards you need to be aware of and plan for when you’re observing storms.

Mobile SKYWARN spotters are those who observe storms from their vehicle, or from a position other than their home or business.  In many communities, there are pre-determined observation sites that typically have unobstructed views of the horizon.  When spotters are activated, they go to these designated locations to observe and report weather conditions.  Some spotters stay mobile during the storm and attempt to move along with it to maintain a view of the “action area” and report any changes as the storm progresses.

NOTE: The National Weather Service does not condone, endorse or recommend storm chasing.  It is a dangerous practice and should not be attempted.

Storm Spotting Policy of Tippecanoe County ARES

SKYWARN is comprised of storm spotters - not storm chasers.  Chasing is an extremely dangerous activity, and should be left to the professionals with advanced meteorological training, the proper tools, and seasoned experience.  Storm chasing cannot be learned by watching television programs that magnify its allure.  Storm chasing is not condoned by ARES in any form.

Even mobile storm spotting is a potentially dangerous activity.  As a matter of policy, Tippecanoe County ARES does not actively deploy its members to particular locations when severe weather threatens the area.  The safety of our volunteers is our top priority and we will not intentionally ask anyone to place themselves in harm's way.

However, we understand the vital need for storm spotter reports and fully support SKYWARN, a program administered by the National Weather Service (NWS).  Many of our members are also trained SKYWARN spotters, and we conduct SKYWARN nets in support of the NWS.  We realize that some of our members, as well as non-ARES amateurs, will want to engage in mobile storm spotting activities during the threat of severe weather.  This is a choice made entirely by the individual, and not part of official TCARES operations.

TCARES members that participate as SKYWARN spotters are expected to understand and follow the storm spotting guidelines and safety practices that are published on this web page, elsewhere on this web site, in official TCARES SOPs and documentation, and provided by the NWS.

Mobile storm spotter communication with the SKYWARN Net Control is essential to personal safety.  If you are an ARES member engaged in mobile storm spotting activity, you are expected to:
  • Advise the SKYWARN Net Control when you are enroute to a designated spotter location, and specify which one.
  • Check in with the NCS upon your arrival, and report your status every 10-15 minutes while there, when practical.
  • If you perform mobile storm spotting from places other than designated spotter sites, advise the NCS of your exact location and update your status, as appropriate.
  • Let the NCS know when you leave a spotter location.
When driving a vehicle while observing storms, do not use any rotating lights, strobes, flashers, wig-wags, or other attention-getting devices. Turn off your headlights while parked to minimize your impact on other motorists. To help warn approaching traffic of your presence, turn on your hazard (four-way) flashers when stationary and use them only while parked. While stationary at a spotter location, the use of rotating lights, strobes, flashers, etc. that do not create an unnecessary distraction for other drivers, is permissible. All applicable laws regarding the color of any illuminated lights must be followed at all times. It is strongly recommended that no more than a total of two illuminated rotating lights, flashing light units, or strobe units be visible from the front, sides, or rear of the vehicle. This will indicate to passing law enforcement officials and motorists that the vehicle is not in distress without creating an unnecessary distraction.

It is common for amateur radio operators to also act as SKYWARN spotters for the National Weather Service, if they have received the proper training. Storm spotting performed by ARES personnel is done of their own accord, not as an ARES function.  In that role, individuals are acting as SKYWARN volunteers for the NWS.

ARES provides communications support for the NWS by conducting SKYWARN nets.  As detailed in the SKYWARN Operations Plan, the mission for ARES when working with the NWS (as a served agency), is rather simple: Relay severe weather reports to the National Weather Service.  This is the only "official" role of ARES in NWS activities.
  • When you are storm spotting, and reporting severe weather conditions, you are acting as a SKYWARN volunteer for NWS
  • When you are helping provide communications (as a Net Control, Alternate Net Control, or Liaison) to relay severe weather reports to the NWS, you are engaging in an ARES activity
Being a SKYWARN spotter and conducting an ARES/SKYWARN Net are separate and distinct functions, with one under the direction of the NWS, and the other a mission of ARES.  ARES does not train, deploy, or manage SKYWARN spotters; that is the role of the NWS through its SKYWARN program.  ARES only provides infrastructure (SKYWARN Nets) by which reports from spotters (working for the NWS) can be relayed to the NWS.

Any questions about this policy should be directed to the Tippecanoe County ARES Emergency Coordinator (EC), or the District Emergency Coordinator (DEC) for Indiana ARES District 4.

Rules of the Road for Storm Spotters

If a mobile storm spotter is well-trained, experienced, and knowledgeable about severe storm structure and behavior, they can usually avoid becoming a victim of the storm itself.  However, the environment in and near a severe storm can change dramatically in a short period of time, and these changes can catch you by surprise.  These basic guidelines can help you stay safe:

You are responsible for your own personal safety and for the safety of your vehicle.  Be especially cautious at night.  Obviously, it is more dangerous to deal with something you cannot clearly see.  Storms at night present special problems and much higher safety risks for spotters.  Your best option for mobile storm spotting at night: don't do it.

If possible, spot with a partner.  This allows the driver to focus on the road while the passenger watches the sky.  This also provides an extra person to keep an eye on rapidly changing events, operate the radio, check radar, and track your location on a map.

Maintain situational awareness.  Always be aware of your surroundings and stay vigilant with regard to the storm and its location relative to your position.  Keep your head on a swivel; when observing a storm, it is easy to become fixated on some feature you’re watching.  You should maintain awareness of what’s going on all around you and always be mindful of a surprise event.  This points out the importance of spotting with a partner, who can be an extra set of eyes and ears to help you stay safe.

Have an escape route planned before the storm reaches you.  Always plan an emergency escape route that will take you out of harm’s way should the storm change direction or otherwise threaten.  Determining that escape route requires a great deal of knowledge about the storm’s movement and behavior.

Watch for water on the road.  Hydroplaning is a serious threat for drivers, and it doesn’t take much rain to cause roads to become slick and hazardous.  Never drive into areas where water covers the road.  This is especially true when you cannot be certain how deep the water is.

Obey traffic laws.  Speeding, running stop signs or traffic control lights, not yielding when required, parking too close to the edge of the road, and making sudden turns and stops on unfamiliar roads all spell trouble.  Just because you may be performing a valuable public service, you are not exempt from any traffic laws.

Stay out of storm damaged areas.  Watch for downed power lines, tree limbs, or other debris in the roadway.  Honor all public safety road blocks and traffic directions.  Unless ARES is asked by a served agency to go into a damaged area to provide communications or other assistance, stay out.

Make sure your vehicle is ready for action.  A well-maintained vehicle with a full tank of gas is crucial for a mobile spotter’s safety and success.

Park well off the roadways and intersections as far as possible (without getting yourself stuck) to avoid passing traffic.

Do not turn off your engine; keep your vehicle running, especially when operating close to a severe storm.  You do not want to find out about a vehicle problem as a violent storm bears down on you.

Turn on your hazard (four-way) flashers when stationary while observing storms (and only while parked).  This helps warn approaching traffic of your presence.  Turn off your headlights while parked to minimize your impact on other motorists.

Avoid the most intense areas of storms.  This seems obvious, but each year spotters, for one reason or another, make decisions that place them in the core of a dangerous storm.  Storm chasers call this “core-punching” and it’s a very dangerous practice.  There is no reason to ever do it, so don't.