The National Weather Service's geostationary satellites, Doppler radar and electronic flood sensors are all aided by a large network of ham radio weather spotters. Colorado weather forecasters have relied on their services since 1955.
Self-proclaimed weather geeks and engineering buffs of all ages provide on-the-ground weather data, which is out of the reach of the National Weather Service’s radar. The NWS national Skywarn program comprises 290,000 trained severe weather spotters nationwide. The Pueblo office, which provides forecasts and warnings for southeastern Colorado, including El Paso and Teller counties, has 1,500 volunteers trained to report snow amounts, high-wind events and hail sizes, said Tom Magnuson, a warning coordination meteorologist at the NWS Pueblo office. “You don't have to go to an in-person training to be a spotter, because some of the things we want don't need any or much training,” Magnuson said. “Anyone can measure hail with a ruler and call it into us. Some of our spotters have rain gauges; and, if it reaches a certain criteria, they'll call us.”
Spotter reports are logged into a database in real time, and some reports are used directly in severe weather warnings — if the storm looks like it will continue to impact the area. “It provides what we call ground truth information,” Magnuson said. “It helps because we have our radar, which looks at all the different aspects of the storm; and, if we can get ground truth, we can calibrate the radar and understand what different radar returns mean on the ground for next time. It's a very important part of our warning process.”
Day-to-day weather reports also help the weather service by providing more data points for record keeping and forecasting model improvement. “We have a daily radio net with about 50 to 60 operators on the list supplying high and low temperatures, precipitation and any snow cover on the ground,” said Sid White, weather operations coordinator for the Pikes Peak Amateur Radio Emergency Service. White, who uses the call sign K4ARM on the radio weather net, has been providing daily reports to the NWS for more than 14 years. “It gives you a reason to get up in the morning,” White said. “And sometimes when it's really cold out and you have to go through the snow to your equipment, you need that reason to get up.”
The team of spotters, with their own equipment, provide more information for the weather service, which has limited financial resources and personnel. “One of the things we're bringing to the table that NWS doesn't have is that they can look at the radar all day long, but that doesn't go all the way to the ground,” said John Bloodgood, public information officer for PPARES whose call sign is KD0SFY. “There are hills and ground clutter in the way. They may not be able to see the last 2,000 feet to the ground. They do have rain sensors and weather stations they can monitor, but those are scattered out. We're mobile and can go do a measurement and let them know what's really going on. That allows them to put out alerts that aren't false alarms. They want to make sure they've got a very accurate alert system to save lives and property.”
The PPARES weather spotters will also send damage reports back to the NWS. “If we see damage, we'll give exact location info to them so the NWS and insurance folks can come out and certify things,” White said.
The cost to become an amateur radio weather spotter can be as low or as high as the new spotter's interest in the hobby, White said. “The weather equipment is expensive by comparison,” he said. “To do anything as a hobby or amateur can get kind of expensive. But we all enjoy it and enjoy knowing what's going on under that big blue umbrella above us.”
Skywarn spotters do not need to have a radio license to participate, Magnuson said. “Most of our spotters call us up on the phone, and there is a way to report online,” Magnuson said. “But there is a lot of amateur radio in Southern Colorado and especially El Paso County. We'll call up a severe weather net and those folks will call in their reports in real time, and we'll monitor that. We have eight people with radio licenses in the office so we can communicate in real time with them.”
Knowing that a hobby can save lives and property drives many of the spotters to help during severe weather. “The time I was most proud of was the July 3, 2014, storms,” said Chris Schroeder (call sign KD0UQI). Schroeder grew his weather spotting hobby into a nonprofit weather education organization. “There were three storms that day I was able to track out east and tell Pueblo to get warnings out for, which might not have happened otherwise,” Schroeder said.
The Colorado Springs and El Paso County Emergency Operations centers also use spotters and PPARES radio operators to monitor stream flooding and provide communications support during disasters and large special events. “A lot of the stream gauges are not electronically monitored, so sometimes we'll ask if anyone is able to go check them, and let Pueblo or the EOCs know if they need to get cops out there to divert people,” White said. The organization also used mobile transmitters and hand-held ham radios to help the Red Cross and government agencies coordinate their response to the Black Forest fire and flooding in Manitou Springs. “We need more people in the areas under recent development: Banning Lewis Ranch, Falcon and the other areas that used to be called 'rural Eastern El Paso County' but now have more homes and people,” White said. “You just need a pair of binoculars and a non-corded telephone. You don't want to call in a thunderstorm report on a corded phone and take a lightning strike to the head. That's pretty important.”
People with a passion for weather can register for the Skywarn spotter program and take online training by clicking on “other useful links” and then clicking on “spotter information” at http://crh.noaa.gov/pub/.
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Since 2007, Gary Stauffer has been working on creating a youth-at-risk ministry center and program on his property, the Soaring Eagles Ranch, located off Judge Orr Road, 3 miles east of Ellicott Highway. Residents on the surrounding properties have voiced concern about his latest attempts to bring a day program and a temporary housing facility to the property for at-risk youth. Neighbor Neva Roa said she received a call from another neighbor early one morning because they had received a letter from Stauffer about his new plans for the ministry. “A question I have is where these kids are going to come from and what kind of control is going to be put on them,” Roa said. “There was a concern that we were going to get a police problem out here.”
Stauffer said his facility will not be a detention center or any sort of off-shoot from the judicial system, so the kids won’t be a danger to the surrounding property owners. “There won’t be a detention center; no barbed wire; no kids from the judicial system that have to be here in lieu of prison,” Stauffer said. “It will be for kids who are having problems in school and got kicked out. If they need extra help or they’re living in a house with problems, they can come out and work on getting some skills.”
Stauffer said he plans to have a day program with a community center where kids can take classes on life skills such as changing oil in a vehicle. “We can teach them something to give them confidence,” he said. Additionally, with the day program kids could spend time with Stauffer's horses, learning to groom and ride them. “The equestrian stuff was one of the first things we started working on,” he said. “They groom the horses, walk the horses and after time, they ride them. Equestrian places usually just offer those services, not life skills. Kids could come here at night after school, on the weekends, whenever; and they would learn not just horses but they could do a bunch of other things, too.”
Aside from the day program, Stauffer said he plans to have a house where some of those at-risk kids can stay if their home isn’t a safe place. “It wouldn’t really be foster care but it would be onsite living, and they could be here for a period of time,” he said. Roa said her concern stems from Stauffer’s apparent lack of direction. “He’s not spelling out exactly what he wants to do,” she said. “He hasn’t given anybody a direct plan from point A to point B.”
Her concerns were echoed by many of her neighbors when they had a meeting Aug. 24 to discuss the letter they received from Stauffer outlining his plans. “He (Stauffer) was invited but he didn’t show up,” she said. “We had 16 people representing 10 different homes in the area at the meeting.” The group wanted to ask Stauffer in person about his plans. “A major concern is whether he’s even capable of providing the counseling services to these kids,” Roa said. “We would have all the kids that come out here go through an evidence-based testing, which is a psychological term to see where the kids are, mentally,” Stauffer said. “We’re not going to have anyone on staff do that but contract it out. Sometimes, the kids will already have that done. Then, there will be follow-up testing that goes with it to be able to tell if they are making any progress for what they’re going through.”
Currently, Stauffer’s plans for the ministry have not been approved by El Paso County. “We have a barn and things like that, but we need approval to get the other facilities built,” he said. “We have a lot of things we’re working on. We pretty much know where things are going to go; we just need the stamp of approval from the county.”