logo


no avatar

SkyWarn program keeps Ottawa County safe

By Audra Gamble/The Holland Sentinel • Sep 28, 2017 at 4:00 PM

Every morning, Allendale resident Ron Wright wakes up, then sends a weather update to a group of fellow weather enthusiasts in Ottawa County.

While Wright is a self-described weather geek, he has another reason to send out the weather update every morning — keeping the county’s residents safe.

Wright and dozens of other volunteers make up a group called SkyWarn, which works with Ottawa County Emergency Management to keep an eye on severe weather patterns.

“When we have inclement weather, the team is already watching the radar and working with the National Weather Service,” said Beth Thomas, Ottawa County’s Emergency Management director. “When we have a severe thunderstorm or tornado watch, we’ll activate at a stronger level to monitor the weather and check in with each other.”

Thomas said the SkyWarn volunteers are on call every day of the year, at all hours of the day. Each SkyWarn volunteer has gone through training with the National Weather Service, then reports what they are seeing throughout the county back to her. When the SkyWarn weather watchers see patterns that could spell trouble for residents of the county, it’s their job to tell Thomas how dangerous the weather could get.

“We have some volunteers that are willing to get out of their beds in the middle of the night and watch the radar, bless their hearts,” Thomas said. “What they’re helping me do is determine how bad it really is out there. That’s how I decide to hit the siren system.”

Because of the topography of the county, weather radar isn’t always accurate. Wright said that while there are National Weather Service radars in Milwaukee and Grand Rapids, Lake Michigan can cause the radars from the two NWS stations to be inaccurate.

“Our biggest detriment is the lake,” Wright said. “The radar you really want to see is at 1,000 feet and below, but because of the curvature of the Earth, you’re at 7,000 feet when you’re mid-lake. Grand Rapids really relies on Ottawa County to know what we’re seeing out there.”

When there is a possibility for severe weather in the forecast, the SkyWarn team is on alert. Most of the volunteers use ham radios to communicate with each other and check in with emergency management.

The volunteers only go through a one-day training session with the National Weather Service in February or March. A meteorologist teaches the volunteers how to read the sky and clouds for thunderstorms and other dangerous weather patterns. The training is open to all residents, not just SkyWarn volunteers.

Once the volunteers go through the free training, they are then certified and able to give weather reports to both the National Weather Service and Ottawa County Emergency Management.

“Those people check in with us, and we take those reports very seriously,” Thomas said. “Those are the eyes on the sky, because of that area below the radar. Things can happen in the atmosphere that the radar isn’t picking up, and the spotters know what can be dangerous.”

So far this year, SkyWarn has been activated five or six times. On years with more tornado and severe thunderstorm watches, SkyWarn can be activated much more frequently. Thomas said as many as 110 SkyWarn volunteers can check in and give reports during an activation.

For Thomas, the point of SkyWarn is to keep the county safe, including those volunteering to provide that safety information.

“The big thing we push is safety, we never want anybody to go in harm’s way,” Wright said. “Spot where you are, even if you’re at work, just tell us what you see.”

Wright, who has outfitted his car with Storm Prediction Center radar, often chooses to go mobile during storms to report what is happening around the county. With such a large county, Thomas said there is always a need for more weather spotters.

“We need as may eyes on the sky as possible,” Thomas said. “Knowing when to take shelter is important and we can always use people watching the weather.”

When a SkyWarn volunteer reports winds of 70 mph or more, that’s Thomas’ cue to hit the emergency sirens throughout the county. A tornado warning from the National Weather Service also warrants sounding the alarms. But that’s not the only reason the outdoor sirens may sound.

“The siren can also be for hazardous material incidents if there was a leak or something in the atmosphere,” Thomas said. “When that siren goes off, people need to shelter in place and close their doors and windows until we give the all-clear.”

Once a severe weather situation is over, the SkyWarn team isn’t quite done working. The volunteers are some of the first people on hand to do damage assessment.

“As soon as the weather passes, we start looking to see how bad things are,” Wright said. When we had the 60 mph wind a few months ago, we were the first people out there telling the National Weather Service and Beth (Thomas) that we really had damage in the county.”

As a longtime weather enthusiast, Wright said one of the most rewarding parts of being a SkyWarn volunteer is the community he’s found in the program.

“The camaraderie in the team is awesome,” he said. “As with any emergency team, you develop and know what the other people are thinking. You’re serving the community and it’s just an awesome feeling knowing the information you provided affected the community.

“Watching storms is really cool,” Wright said. “I just love a good thunderstorm.”

Wright said anyone can become a SkyWarn spotter, as long as they are willing to keep a cool head during a storm.

Anyone interested in becoming a member of the SkyWarn network can call Chris Saddler, the volunteer coordinator at 616-738-4052 for more information about the training and application.

“It’s nice for people to know that there’s a whole team of people here in emergency management for them,” Thomas said. “They’re working behind the scenes to keep the people of Ottawa County safe.”

Recommended for You