SEBRING – On a stormy day, Jeff Bronsing may look outside his window and see a small funnel cloud, hail or severe lightning.
But two hours away in Tampa, the National Weather Service, even with its advanced radar system, may not be aware of what is happening.
“We’re in the shadow of the radar,” Bronsing said.
That’s why people like him who participate in the National Weather Service’s SKYWARN program are so important, said Daniel Noah, warning coordinator meteorologist for the National Weather Service.
The basic problem, he said, is that radar in the Tampa area picks up activity above 8,000 feet in the Highlands County area, but can be blind to what happens below.
Dealing with that is especially important in relation to tornadoes, said Ben Henley, emergency management coordinator for Highlands County.
“Most tornadoes are below that,” he said. And because of that, the National Weather Service on its own “can’t verify a tornado is on the ground (in Highlands County) because they can’t see that low.”
The problem is less severe in areas that are closer to Tampa, such as Hardee County, Henley said.
Many people are unaware of the number of tornadoes that hit Florida and Highlands County, he said. When eight tornadoes hit Highlands County two years ago, “that was a huge awakening for us.”
It’s unlikely a new radar system would be put in place in Highlands County or closer than Tampa to improve coverage, because of the cost, Henley said. Years ago, the military had a ground radar system at the Avon Park Bombing Range, but when the military reduced its presence there, that “radar went away,” he said.
That’s why, in Highlands County, “we’re basically the eyes on the ground,” Bronsing said.
Bronsing is the SKYWARN coordinator for Highlands County. He said that some of the SKYWARN participants communicate by radio. Some also have their own weather stations to help assess what is going on, he said.
Although Noah said the program has registered more than 300 participants, some are inactive and others have moved away. The ranks are further reduced during the summer, as a few are seasonal residents.
Bronsing said he wants to increase the number of active participants. He primarily deals with a small core group of people who have radios. Some other people may communicate weather information in other ways, he said.
When the weather situation heats up in Highlands County, he said, he watches what is going on outside. If the situation merits it, he will communicate with the National Weather Service, which can then issue a warning or an advisory. A minor storm with some thunder and lightning won’t prompt a report, he said.
But, a severe thunder storm, a tornado or hail would necessitate a report, he added.
SKYWARN participants are trained how to determine what to report. To be considered severe, a thunderstorm must have one of the following: hail that is 1 inch or larger, wind gusts of at least 58 miles per hour or faster, or a tornado, according to a guide provided to spotters.
It’s important to note, Bronsing said, that SKYWARN participants aren’t storm chasers. They don’t go out in the middle of a tornado and try to follow the storm. He said he may get out in some rough weather but advises others not to do it.
Bronsing and others involved in the program are part of a national program. The web site, SKYWARN.org says the National Weather Service started the program in the 1970s and since then more than 290,000 people nationwide have been trained as weather spotters.
“These volunteers help keep their local communities safe by providing timely and accurate reports of severe weather to the National Weather Service,” the web site said.
The program, coupled with Doppler radar technology, has allowed the National Weather Service to issue more timely and accurate warnings for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flash floods.
The web site said the concept for the program began in the 1960s and it was “intended to promote a cooperative effort between the National Weather Service and communities.”
To become part of the program, people often attend training events, such as one recently in Highlands County. There they learn to look for conditions that suggest the possibility that a tornado could occur. Those could include high winds, an extreme thunderstorm and hail, Bronsing said.
Henley said 26 people attended the last session in Highlands County.
But even with many eyes on the sky watching out for nasty weather, there’s got to be a way to communicate that information.
Randy Payne, who is head of the Amateur Radio Emergency Services organization in Highlands County, said radios can be a very effective way of doing that when other forms of communication are down.
At least once a month, SKYWARN spotters with radios check in with each other by radio.
Payne said he has been involved with emergency services since the 1960s and is also a weather spotter. A former teacher and pastor, Payne said, he likes to help his community.
For Bronsing, participating in the program came naturally.
“I’ve always been a weather buff,” he said.
Bronsing said he previously lived in the keys and volunteered with U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. “The biggest thing down there is water spouts,” he said.
Bronsing said he views his participation with the auxiliary and the SKYWARN program as giving back to the community.
“When you can help people out, you get a good feeling,” he said. “It’s about helping your neighbors.”