June 19, 2024

Storm Spotters brave elements to get a first look at severe weather

Ham radio group aids emergency management efforts in Jasper County

Tornado sirens might send most Iowans scrambling for their basements, but they send Chuck Wagoner out to his pickup truck.

Wagoner, along with his colleagues in Newton’s ham radio club, the Amateur Radio Association of Newton have been assisting emergency management personnel in Jasper County for years, heading out to track and monitor deadly storms. In April, the association will sponsor a free class designed to teach residents more about storm spotting, and how to recognize dangerous weather events.

“It just gives you a good idea of what to look for in a storm and not be terrified, because it may not be as bad as it seems,” Wagoner said.

During the class, participants will learn how to spot funnel clouds, the best way to contact emergency officials and how to accurately measure wind speed.

For almost 40 years, the ham radio club has been working hand in hand with officials in Jasper County to help monitor dangerous storms. Members of the club communicate via ham radio, a form of amateur radio that has more two million active users around the globe. While Wagoner acknowledged ham radio is primarily a hobby, he said it also functions as an important emergency messaging service. When severe weather threatens Jasper County members of the club head to observe the storm, acting as the “eyes and ears” of the National Weather Service.

“It’s a hobby, but it’s also nationally recognized as an emergency service,” Wagoner said. “When there’s some kind of a disaster we’re ready to set up at a moment’s notice.”

Jim Sparks, the director of Jasper County’s Emergency Management, said there’s always a need for storm spotters to keep an eye on things. In the more rural parts of the county many smaller communities will send out a member of the fire department to keep an eye on developing storms, a role members of the Amateur Radio Association can fill as well.

“I don’t think there’s a situation where you could have too many,” Sparks said. “Basically what they do is serve as a confirmation of what the weather service is seeing on radar is actually happening.”

Sparks said he enjoys working with Wagoner and the other ham operators, he noted they’ve won numerous awards over the years. Being able to receive timely and accurate communication during a severe weather event is important, and Sparks said he’s always been amazed that when other forms of communications break down ham radio operators are still able to stay in contact. During a disaster, Sparks said ham radio operators would be an “integral part” of any communications.

“For whatever reason when a lot of other forms of communications are down these guys are still talking to each other,” Sparks said. “They provide an invaluable service whenever there’s a major disaster.”

Not only is ham radio prized for its reliability, but Wagoner said using ham radio to communicate also frees up phone lines, meaning that emergency calls able to reach dispatch operators during a severe weather event.

“If everyone uses their cell phone 911 gets tied up and real emergencies couldn’t get through,” Wagoner said.

Last year the Amateur Radio Association of Newton celebrated its 80th year, and Wagoner said the club currently has 16 members, some of whom have been members of the organization since the early 1950s. Recently members have been trying to attract new members to the organization, by holding a membership class last year, and the free storm spotters class this year Wagoner said the group is hoping to kickstart a membership drive.

“It has declined, most of the guys have been around for a long time,” Wagoner said.

Only about 10 of the association’s members are part of the team that heads out to do storm spotting, and Wagoner said the group is hopeful they’ll convert a few new members with the upcoming class. You don’t have to be a hero to be a storm spotter, Wagoner said, you just have to willing to lend a hand. Helping Jasper County residents stay safe when severe weather threatens, and making sure they have accurate information during a crisis is what’s important, Wagoner said.

“We do it because we want to make sure people are safe, that’s one the biggest reasons people join the club, they want to do something good for their fellow man,” Wagoner said. “We’re not heroes, we’re just citizens doing a good thing for the people.”

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or ddolmage@newtondailynews.com