Fillmore Skywarn — local weather watchers
As spring approaches, many of us begin to think more about the possibility of severe weather. Thanks to Fillmore Skywarn, a volunteer storm detection group, we can rest a little easier. Storm spotters emphasize safety as the top priority when looking for storms; people are placed to the side or rear of storms and never cross a bridge without knowing that there is another way out of the area. Their job is to observe the storm and report it to the appropriate emergency authorities. Club leader Jim Miller stressed that they are NOT storm chasers. Brian Stockman added, “We try not to become a victim!”
Skywarn was formed by Justin Johnson and Jim Miller in 2015 and currently has eight active trained members including Brian Stockman, Chris Harris, Dave Harrenstein, Ken Heidelbaugh, Bill Puffer and Richard Groby in addition to Miller and Johnson.
In 2018, Bill Puffer, Brian Stockman, Justin Johnson, and Jim Miller formed SEMNARC (Southeast Minnesota Amateur Radio Club), a club of amateur radio operators to which all Skywarn members also belong. Using their amateur radios, they are able to communicate regardless of power or internet outages. This capability provides assurance that warnings can pass. Stockman is the “tech nerd”, a position he is well qualified for, having worked on the statewide 911 system.
The members of the club have no professional training in meteorology, but they share the pleasure of all types of weather. By combining their passion for amateur radio, their interest in the weather, and their willingness to volunteer their time to serve the communities of Fillmore County, they provide a valuable resource to residents.
Skywarn members attend annual storm watcher training sessions presented by the La Crosse National Weather Service (NWS); Additionally, they watch videos provided by NWS during their monthly meetings to learn how storms develop and evolve. They also discuss long range and digital communication in their meetings.
Skywarn has a structured and prescribed mode of operation. Weather forecasts are checked every morning along with severe weather forecasts from La Crosse NWS and updates from the Severe Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. If a storm is brewing, the net check (the person who stays at a home base during a scouting situation) touches down the base with local emergency personnel. When the La Crosse NWS suggests the activation of observers, the person serving as net control decides where to place the observers based on radar observations. Each spotter has the same maps of spotter locations and goes to the assigned point. The maps cover all of Fillmore County and part of Mower County. Net control coordinates with emergency officials and fire departments and monitors radar to ensure spotters stay safe.
The notification criteria depend on the type of weather. Observers carry an anemometer to check the wind speed. Usually, winds of over 40 mph and hail of a quarter or more are reported using amateur radio repeaters to control the net; the information is then passed to Don Kullot, Fillmore County Emergency Manager, and John Dols, Spring Valley Emergency Manager. They then relay the information to La Crosse NWS via the state’s Armer radio system.
Each spotter has the APRS app which uses radios and phones to transmit their exact locations. The group has two amateur radio repeaters and a third line, GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service). Fillmore Skywarn has a private channel on the Zello phone app, which uses voice over IP addresses.
Skywarn uses doppler and has several radar sources; it has access to fast-looping high-definition radar that shows plenty of detail, including even debris in storms.
During the storms on December 15, 2021, Skywarn actually activated the warnings. In total, Skywarn has activated warnings 10 times in 2021. La Crosse radar does not pick up activity near the ground in the Fillmore County area due to its distance and the fact that the radar travels in a straight line rather than following the curvature of the earth. Accordingly, Skywarn provides the necessary information. Skywarn also does storm damage assessment.
Member Justin Johnson was instrumental in installing a cross-link system at the Fillmore County Fairgrounds. This allows the club to obtain weather information inside and outside the fairgrounds. Richard Groby donated equipment and Brian Stockman repaired equipment. Thus, the fair always has access to the most recent weather information.
At this time, Skywarn is looking for more members. If weather and amateur radio pique your interest and you want to help your community, consider joining the group. Meetings are usually held at the Spring Valley Ambulance Building on the third Saturday of the month. You don’t have to be an amateur radio operator to be part of the Skywarn group – there are other communication options available to report to Network Control. You can be a mobile spotter or a spotter from home.
A new member will need to take the NWS training in person or online; a course will be held in Rochester on April 13 and several other sessions will be held in the area. Classes are open to the public.
If you want to get into amateur radio, the amateur radio license costs around $14 for 10 years. Hand-held radios cost around $50, mobile radios cost between $300 and $400, and a home station costs $2,000. Mentoring is very important, veteran hams are very willing to help newbies as mentors.
You can check the SEMNARC Facebook page, their webpage at fillmorecountyhams.org or call Justin Johnson at (507) 951-2457 or Jim Miller at (507) 261-7695 for more information. You can also email the group: [email protected]
Jim Miller pointed out, “Fillmore County has had storm watchers before; the volunteer fire department, sheriff’s department, and other emergency services are the storm detection backbone for Fillmore County. The Skywarn Group adds to what they do and complements their work. Join Skywatch and help them!