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National Weather Service in Ruskin needs extra eyes, ears

The National Weather Service's Tampa Bay Area office is in search of more SKYWARN spotters like Riverview resident Scott Irwin who, via his ham radio, are willing to report potentially hazardous weather conditions in their communities to meteorologists at the Ruskin office. Having use of a ham radio, however, or previous experience is not a pre-requisite. | Photo courtesy of Scott Irwin.
The National Weather Service's Tampa Bay Area office is in search of more SKYWARN spotters like Riverview resident Scott Irwin who, via his ham radio, are willing to report potentially hazardous weather conditions in their communities to meteorologists at the Ruskin office. Having use of a ham radio, however, or previous experience is not a pre-requisite. | Photo courtesy of Scott Irwin.
Published Mar. 16, 2018

RUSKIN — Scott Irwin describes his volunteer role in warning the public about potentially life-threatening weather dangers as an invaluable, feel-good endeavor.

"Just being involved in helping others — I think that's really cool," said Irwin, who in addition to his commitment to his career as an IT professional, is passionate about his sideline position as a SKYWARN spotter for the National Weather Service - Tampa Bay Area, headquartered in Ruskin.

While NWS meteorologists have access to data from the Doppler radar system, satellite and surface weather stations, it's virtually impossible for them to detect every dangerous weather occurrence within its seven-county service area on Florida's west coast.

That is where the role of spotters comes into play.

Irwin is a licensed ham radio operator who in 1995 began serving as a NWS SKYWARN severe weather spotter in the Midwest prior to moving to Riverview four years ago.

Since then he has periodically reported to the NWS office about high winds and heavy rain he has witnessed in his neighborhood and the surrounding area to the Ruskin NWS office, most recently in advance of Hurricane Irma. Via his radio he's able to communicate his observations regardless of whether he's in a location with or without power.

"Every place in the country has different issues, but weather patterns in Florida are a little different from most states. Here we have sea breezes that collide with the Atlantic (Ocean) and that causes a different set of problems," he said. "So I'm constantly learning about weather phenomena, which I find interesting."

Captain Chuck Hahn of Hillsborough County Rescue Station 23 in Dover also is a Tampa Bay area SKYWARN spotter.

"Florida is an amazing place where the weather can change very quickly and spotters can play an important role in reporting what they see to the National Weather Service office in Ruskin, where it helps them build a data base of information based on those reports," Hahn said. "That information is very useful during times of threatening and bad storms because the local news media uses it to compile their weather reports."

Daniel Noah, Tampa Bay area warning coordination meteorologist, said in-the-field volunteers are the eyes and ears of their specific communities and provide timely and often vital sources of information when dangerous storms are approaching.

Without them, he stressed, the weather service would be less able to fulfill its mission of protecting people's lives and property.

"Currently there are close to 1,500 SKYWARN severe weather spotters in west central and southwest Florida and we're looking to double that number over the next two years," Noah said.

Public service personnel including law enforcement officials, emergency medical service workers, postal service and public utility workers, amateur radio operators and other private citizens interested in protecting themselves and others from harm are eligible and encouraged to become spotters.

The only restriction is that volunteers be at least 18 years old.

Online and in-person training classes are available.

"I found the class very simple but helpful in that I learned a little bit more about how storms develop and what to look for in identifying potentially severe weather," Hahn said.

Contact Joyce McKenzie at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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