Dayton Skywarn volunteers are unsung heroes
Article that appeared in the Vandalia Drummer News
July 27, 2007
When she's on the job, Dayton Skywarn coordinator Paula DiGennaro is right at home relaying reports of hail, funnel clouds, high winds and tornados to the National Weather Service.
But when she's off duty, the energetic public servant has a secret.
"I'm deathly afraid of storms," said DiGennaro, adding a hearty laugh.
A Skywarn volunteer for the past 27 years, DiGennaro is clearly most comfortable in the eye of the storm.
DiGennaro, also known by her call letters KA8HQJ, has served along with her husband Nelson (WB8VUU0) as coordinators of Dayton Skywarn for the past 15 years.
With a combined 53 years of experience with the organization, the pair has seen their share of severe weather excitement.
Eyes on Weather
Skywarn volunteers are amateur radio operators who have been trained to provide visual severe weather reports to the National Weather Service. Known as the "eyes of the NWS", these volunteers offer first hand weather spotting information that can help the NWS verify conditions and pinpoint trouble spots.
Dayton Skywarn works to collect the reports that come in via amateur radio from a 15 county area. The nonprofit organization then serves as a conduit of this information to the NWS.
The devastating tornado that struck Xenia in 1974 served as a catalyst in the formation of Dayton Skywarn.
A group of amateur radio operators, or hams, decided to work together with the NWS to train operators to provide quick and accurate information from a wide variety of locations.
"It was just hams getting together to do it," said DiGennaro. "This is what ham radio is about."
The group worked along side meteorologists at the Dayton Weather Service office in Vandalia until 1995. When the Regional Weather Service Forecast Office in opened in Wilmington, local Skywarn groups were reorganized. The 54 counties that came under the RWSFO's jurisdiction were divided into 5 sections and the Dayton Section Skywarn was formed.
Counties that come under the Dayton Skywarn umbrella are: Montgomery, Miami, Preble, Greene, Clark, Champaign, Logan, Shelby, Darke, Harden, Auglaize, and Mercer counties as well as northern Warren County and Wayne, Fayette and Union counties in Indiana.
The newly formed section was ready to spring into action except for one small problem, they were homeless. The Butler Township Fire Department opened their doors, providing a roof for the organization in a township fire station.
"Butler Fire Department has been awesome," said DiGennaro. "We're so grateful to have Butler be so generous to us."
Dayton Skywarn's call sign, W8OK, had originally belonged to a volunteer named Frank Schwab. Schwab had played a significant role in the founding of the Skywarn program in the Dayton area. After Schwab's death, Dayton Skywarn carried the call sign in tribute to the dedicated public servant.
Since its inception, Dayton Skywarn has served as a prototype for other Skywarn groups across the country.
A day in the life
When the possibility of severe weather looms, the NWS will activate one primary and one secondary Dayton Skywarn volunteer. These volunteers are required to be at the station and operating within a 25 minute window of activation. Allowing 10 minutes for set up, the volunteers are left with a mere 15 minutes of travel time.
Liaisons on a county level gather information from amateur radio operators reporting from private homes. These reports are then conveyed to Dayton Skywarn by radio, and Dayton Skywarn in turn prioritizes the reports and relays them to amateur radio operators at the NWS.
According to DiGennaro, the work at Dayton Skywarn is 97 percent boredom and 3 percent sheer terror.
"One of the requirements we have when we're looking for a new person to join the organization is that they have a sense of humor," smiled DiGennaro. "We are setting here waiting for the weather to show up, during those down times you really need something to get you going."
"We have an eclectic group of people," said DiGennaro. "These people are dedicated; their motivation is to help the community."
Potential volunteers must complete a questionnaire interview, as well as a face to face interview and extensive training.
All of the Skywarn volunteers are licensed amateur radio operators. Further training in severe weather reporting is also required and is conducted by Dayton Skywarn.
The majority of the Dayton Skywarn volunteers are from Vandalia and Butler Township, Huber Heights and other areas north of Dayton, but some volunteers come from as far as Kettering as well as east Dayton.
In addition to Dayton Skywarn volunteers, there are hundreds of ham operators in the 15 county Dayton section who report from their homes in the event of severe weather.
Volunteers are trained to report:
Cloud formations: roll clouds, wall clouds, rotating funnel shaped clouds, roar and debris, tornado (funnel cloud touching the ground)
Hail: Pea size, 1/4 in or larger, intensity-is the ground covered or not
Winds over 40 miles per hour.
Flash flooding: Streams overflowing their banks, ponding of water in the streets, water standing curb to curb.
Rain gauge reports: Immediately reports rainfall of one inch or more within an hour and total rainfall after an event
Damage reports: To buildings, trees and utility poles, limbs down, diameter of limbs and direction they fell.
Information that is not reported includes: Lightning, activation or non activation of warning sirens, information overheard on public service radio unless requested, power outages, and traffic accidents.
One area ham operator serves the community in spite of a visual disability. If Dayton Skywarn volunteers are unable to make it to the station within the 25 minute window, volunteer Shirley Roberts will man the Skywarn frequency from her home. Roberts does the preliminary net and brings on the county liaisons.
DiGennaro advises private citizens to purchase a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association Weather Alert Radio.
These radios cost around $70 and broadcast NWS warnings before the warnings are issued to the general public through the media.
"Everyone on the planet should have a NOAA Weather Alert Radio," said DiGennaro. "They are your number one line of defense; they will save your life."
To illustrate this point, DiGennaro tells of a story of a family who survived the Xenia tornado of 2000. When the family heard the tornado warning on their NOAA radio, they immediately headed for their basement. As the last family member closed the basement door, the tornado struck the house, pulling the door off its hinges. The entire family, including pets, survived thanks to their NOAA radio.
How to help
As a nonprofit, 501(c) 3 organization, Dayton Skywarn welcomes donations. The organization conducts only one fundraiser, the sale of Dayton Skywarn shirts at training events. For information about making a donation, check out the Dayton Skywarn web site at www.dayton-skywarn.org.
The organization is also in need of a back-up radio.
The NWS honored the DiGennaros for their many years of community service. The couple will be stepping down at the end of this year. Filling their shoes in 2008 will be Louis Long, KB8TCK, and
Don Parker, KB8PSL.
DiGennaro has a great deal of respect for the hundreds of amateur radio operators who are Skywarn volunteers.
"This really is a group of people that nobody is aware of except for the small part of the community that come to the ham classes," said DiGennaro. "They are the unsung heroes."
As large hail, strong winds and a threatening wall-cloud formation rapidly swept through southwest Ohio on June 16, skilled amateur radio operators (hams) were prepared to continue relaying up-to-the-minute storm information over SKYWARN communications network.
About mid afternoon, SKYWARN vital chain of command began providing important localized ground reports to the National Weather Service in Wilmington. NWS officials immediately correlated the data with their NEXRAD Doppler radar readings for updated National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio broadcasts throughout the day.
The tone-alert broadcasts, receivable for up to 40 miles on NOAA weather radios, notify emergency and public safety officials responsible for activating local warning systems.
Montgomery and Greene are among the 15-plus counties served by the Dayton section, which has more than 1,000 accredited weather spotters. Dayton SKYWARN (KC8CMG), associated with both the regional and national organizations, was formed by National Weather Service personnel and hams following the tornado that devastated Xenia in 1974.
To talk to radio operators within all 15-plus counties, the Dayton section of SKYWARN operates on two radio frequencies utilizing radio repeater systems maintained by the Miami Valley FM Association and the Shelby County Amateur Radio Emergency System. The Greene County SKYWARN network, which reports information to Dayton SKYWARN, utilizes a repeater system maintained by X-Warn in Xenia.
Ken Haydu, meteorologist-in-charge at Wilmington's NWS facility, attests to SKYWARN vital role.
"We couldn't do our job without them," he said. "The members of SKYWARN describe the ground truth of our radar. This helps us provide very accurate watches and warnings. Their assistance, especially during the last several weeks, has been integral to our operation."
SKYWARN regional operation covers 52 counties throughout southwest Ohio, southeast Indiana and North Central Kentucky. Dayton, Cincinnati and Columbus all have sections of that territory.
Haydu said Cincinnati's group was instrumental in relaying advance reports of the tornado which struck the suburb of Blue Ash in March 1999.
"SKYWARN visual descriptions from the ground gave us the opportunity to provide that whole area with a 20-minute lead time. That's almost unprecedented with a tornado of that nature," he said.
Haydu said a key factor was SKYWARN spotters' ability to see tornadic activity in the dark at 4 a.m.
"For anyone to see that at night they would have to be an excellently trained spotter," Haydu said, "and they did an outstanding job. There's no doubt that SKYWARN efforts saved lives."
Ironically, the night the Blue Ash tornado touched down, Huber Heights residents Paula DiGennaro (KA8HQJ) and her husband, Nelson (WB8VUU), sectional coordinators with the Dayton section of SKYWARN, were listening to the emergency communications from inside their RV parked overnight at a truck stop south of Covington, Ky.
The couple, along with several other RVs, were en route to Tennessee the next day. Because of the SKYWARN system, they gave visual spotter reports for the Northern Kentucky area to the Cincinnati section of SKYWARN during the tornadic event. Fortunately, the DiGennaros experienced only heavy wind and rain at their location. In addition to Blue Ash, tornado warnings were issued for Dry Ridge, Ky., less than a half-mile to their south.
As radio stations filled the morning's airwaves with reports of damage, the DiGennaros proceeded safely on their trip.
"That experience was really different for us," Paula said. "This time we were on the outside looking in instead of the inside looking out."
She concurs with Haydu that the extra lead time provided by the Cincinnati SKYWARN group saved lives.
Clayton resident Shirley Roberts (N8LX) is a SKYWARN sectional member who takes pride in her volunteer service to the group. Her liaison position, relatively new to the Dayton SKYWARN sectional team, involves the preliminary check-in of SKYWARN representatives in each county while net control operators are en route to the communication command center.
"Shirley plays a vital role in our operations and her work is very impressive," said DiGennaro. "Most everyone in local amateur radio knows her."
Roberts has a degree from Wright State University and an FCC license, serving with several regional organizations and maintaining her state-of-the art computer equipment.
Roberts, who has been blind since birth, does all of her work utilizing a specialized Braille computer system. She was also one of the 100-plus people attending Montgomery County's SKYWARN Spotter training at Miami Valley Hospital prior to this year's severe weather season.
The spotters, trained to report weather conditions matching specific criteria, are invited to attend free classes presented annually in each county by the NWS and Dayton SKYWARN. Class guests may include government dignitaries or meteorologists from Dayton television stations or The Weather Channel.
Mike Kalter (W8CI) of Xenia serves multifaceted roles in the Greene County SKYWARN group as well as the Dayton section as both a spotter and network control operator. He's also vice president of the Emergency Management Authority, which interfaces with SKYWARN objectives.
Kalter, who said he is called about 20 times a year to assist SKYWARN, enjoys science and weather studies and also attends the spotter classes, which he says provide "fascinating training."
Glenn DeBerry of Riverside, a SKYWARN spotter for three years, has maintained a keen interest in local weather conditions, having experienced tornadic activity in Texas and overseas during his former Air Force career.
Dayton SKYWARN receives free space in the Butler Twp. fire station in cooperation with Chief Charles Wiltrout and Butler Twp. trustees. Western Ohio Emergency Management Association assists with the cost of equipment insurance and net control operators pay for their own pagers and expenses.
Dayton SKYWARN, is a classed as a charitable organization and contributions are tax deductible. Fund-raising projects include the sale of SKYWARN emblems and shirts at the annual Dayton Hamvention and during spotter training classes. The organization does not collect dues but encourages ham radio operators to pay dues to their respective clubs, which support the SKYWARN program.
"SKYWARN survives for the sole purpose of serving the National Weather Service for health and welfare," DiGennaro said. "Our purpose is to save lives and protect our communities. It feels great to accomplish that."
When the weather gets stormy,
these volunteers spring into action.
By Amy Pryor
When the clouds turn gray and the wind begins to blow, families will take shelter but there are those few dedicated people who brave the weather to help protect and inform. These people are known as the volunteers for SKYWARN.
SKYWARN is the National Weather Service network of volunteer citizens, public service and emergency management people working to assist the National Weather Service in providing weather spotting during severe weather events.
It was decided that a faster, more accurate visual form of severe weather reporting was needed after the 1974 Xenia tornado.
At the time, several amateur radio operators from the Dayton area along with the National Weather Service began the service known as SKYWARN. This new service was housed in Vandalia until 1995when the Dayton Weather Service Office closed and the National Weather Service moved their offices to Wilmington. This move seperated the 56 counties covered by the WSO in Wilmington into five sections: Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus, West Union and Clinton County. Dayton SKYWARN found its home in Montgomery County.
The counties that report to Dayton SKYWARN are Shelby, Auglaize, Mercer, Logan, Hardin, Clark, Champaign, Darke, Preble, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and the northern portion of Warren in Ohio plus Wayne, Union and Fayette in Indiana.
Dayton SKYWARN's sole purpose is to furnish the National Weather Service with visual spotter information when activated by NWS during times of severe weather.
Consisting of three amateur radio operators during severe weather, these three people may be in control of the most important information existing to the Dayton area at that time.
"It's 97 percent sheer boredom and 3 percent sheer terror," said Chris Harris, Dayton SKYWARN Net Control Operator.
Dayton SKYWARN Net Control Operators are on call round the clock, by
pager, from late February to mid November. There are currently 12
Operators working with Dayton SKYWARN. These volunteers were activated 18
times and donated over 108 hours of their time last year. The volunteers
of Dayton SKYWARN also participate in training future volunteers in their
own sections and in the other four.
Every year more volunteers are recruited for Dayton SKYWARN.
"We interview people and they have to pass a series of questions," said Nelson DiGennaro, sectional coordinator for Dayton SKYWARN. "The right answers aren't always the obvious ones."
"The worse the weather gets, the more people get involved," said Chris Harris.
Once volunteers are activated by NWS, liaison representatives of amateur radio clubs from different counties check in to Dayton SKYWARN. When the county nets receive reports from their local spotters the information is relayed by the liaisons to Dayton SKYWARN, via amateur radio. Dayton SKYWARN then relays the information on to amateur radio operator on location at Wilmington's National Weather Service office.
Although this process seems time consuming, the experience radio operators can have the reports in the hands of the NWS within minutes. Once the information is given to the NWS, meteorologists analyze it and either ask for more information from SKYWARN and the spotters or issue a "Warning" to the public.
"We just try to expedite the information," said Paula DiGennaro, Dayton SKYWARN Sectional Coordinator.
The Radar available to the NWS can not view the weather 5,000 feet from the earth's surface and must rely on the spotters to relay that information to them.
"We're looking for the ground truth," said DiGennaro. "NWS doesn't advocate chasing a storm because it's too hilly and there are too many trees. You could run yourself right into a storm."
Dayton SKYWARN is a non profit organization and relies completely on donations. Since it is comprised entirely of volunteer amateur radio operators, all equipment and training materials are donated. Even the site in which Dayton SKYWARN operates from was donated in the form of a public service building located in Butler Twp. Montgomery County.