In dangerous weather, emergency response teams can only be in so many places at once.
“We’ve only got so many people out there, and you know, there's nothing better than boots on the ground,” said Bill Zimmerman, director of emergency management for St. Joseph County.
The National Weather Service and personnel in emergency management services depend on volunteers to be their eyes and ears and help warn people about dangerous weather that can cause serious damage.
St. Joseph County emergency management services spent three hours Monday night training about 50 local residents to become storm spotters.
“What you can see, I can see, is valuable,” said Zimmerman.
Being a weather spotter takes not only a desire to help, but the knowledge and training to do so.
Volunteers came to the training session at Jordan Hall of Science on the Notre Dame campus to learn the process of reporting dangerous weather to the National Weather Service and were shown an overview of how to differentiate dangerous weather from weather that might just have the appearance of being dangerous.
What the students learned will help them give more accurate information to the National Weather Service.
“I started last year photographing storms, and I figured if i was going to be out doing that, I might be able to help some people by reporting what I'm seeing,” said John Crothers, from Vandalia, Michigan.
Kimberly Howell, who has come to the training several times, is a storm chaser.
““I like to come these courses and just basically refresh to make sure I know exactly what I'm looking at come storm season, said Howell, a resident of Niles, Michigan. “By being a spotter, by being a chaser, [I can] also relay what I'm seeing to the National Weather Service and help out in that warning process.”
Zimmerman said people should not underestimate the importance of getting proper training.
“You have to be trained, because you could misinterpret the information, and if we get bad information out to the weather service or response agencies, that could cause problems all the way around,” said Zimmerman.
The people who came to Monday night’s training will now go on to take online courses and meet with emergency management personnel. The meetings with emergency management personnel will give volunteers practice in identifying different types of weather hazards by watching videos and looking at photos.
In an economy where resources are limited all over the country, emergency management agencies say volunteers are vital.
“We don't have a lot of money, and [there are] budget cuts across the country--as everybody keeps hearing about--so the more people we have that volunteer their time and help us out, it makes it easier to do our job, which is safeguarding the citizens,” said Zimmerman.
There are about 300 trained weather spotters in St. Joseph County.
The director said the time it takes to become a proficient weather spotter varies from person to person. After an introductory training like the one Monday night, people have the option to take two to five hours of online training. They also can meet with emergency management personnel for six to eight hours of practical training, where they are shown photos and videos and tested on their ability to identify different weather hazards. The director said some people grasp the material faster than others and can become adept at identifying weather hazards after only a few hours.
The St. Joseph Emergency Management agency is currently in the process of creating a certification system for storm spotters.