On the same wavelength

December 04,2005
BY JANNETTE PIPPIN View stories by reporter

NEWPORT – When the National Weather Service opened its office in Newport 12 years ago, head meteorologist Tom Kriehn was quick to get to know the area’s amateur radio operators.

Kriehn knew they would be a valuable asset in providing severe weather information from the field.

“They have a long history around the country of working with the National Weather Service,” he said.

Not all storm spotters are hams but the combination of a spotter trained in communications is an ideal situation for forecasters, who count on real-time reports to help warn the public of severe weather such as tropical storms and tornadoes.

“The best spotters you can get are those who are also communicators; people in the field who can communicate back to us in a hurry,” Kriehn said.

That makes the ham radio community a big part of the Skywarn program, a network of people that report severe weather to local NWS offices.

To show its appreciation to the amateur radio operators in its 15-county operation area, the National Weather Service office in Newport participated in the SKYWARN Recognition Day held Saturday around the country.

It was an informal opportunity for the radio operators to gather and for the meteorologists to say thanks.

“No matter how good the technology is, nothing beats a pair of human eyes to tell you what is going on,” said meteorologist Hal Austin, who is also a ham radio operator.

Austin said spotter reports provide information on everything from hail size and wind damage to flooding and tornados. It corroborates and details what is being seen on weather service radar.

“It helps us confirm what we think is going on and helps us get that information out to the public,” Austin said.

For the ham radio operators, it’s an opportunity to put the skills they know to use to help others.

“It’s an opportunity to be able to help out, to help our neighbors and everyone in the area,” said Eric Christensen of Greenville.

Christensen was presented with a certificate of appreciation for developing a Skywarn Web site for the Newport district. Bill Sanford, the Skywarn emergency coordinator for the Newport district, was recognized for providing the weather service office with technical assistance in updating its ham radio equipment.

Ken Ball of Morehead City accepted a certificate on behalf of the entire Skywarn network for the area.

Ball, who has had his ham radio license for 14 years, said there’s a public service aspect to amateur radio that extends beyond just storm spotting.

Ball said radio operators are a major part of emergency response and disaster recovery efforts as well because they are often the only communication available when phones and other conventional communications go down.

It was seen recently during the catastrophic Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and right here at home several years ago when Hurricane Isabel disabled communications in Carteret County’s down east communities.

Ball said ham radio operators provided communication between down east canteens operated by the Salvation Army and response workers in other parts of the county.

Bernard Nobles, section emergency coordinator for ham radio operators in North Carolina, said amateur radio is the back up communication for public service agencies such as emergency management offices in the state, the National Weather Service, and groups like the Salvation Army and Red Cross.

Contact staff writer Jannette Pippin at jpippin@freedomenc.com or by calling (252) 808-2275.