Amateur radio corps seeks volunteer weather spotters

By: Nico Rubello | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published April 3, 2013

MACOMB COUNTY —When a major weather event strikes, you can bet the National Weather Service is monitoring it.

But outside of their radar screens and weather measuring instruments, the experts still like to have eyes on the ground to give them up-to-the-minute information about what is happening at the scene.

That’s where Skywarn comes in.

Skywarn is a nationwide network of volunteer weather spotters who report to the National Weather Service. Skywarn volunteers are trained to identify and report severe weather events, like severe thunderstorms, tornados, hail, heavy snow and flooding.

“You can either report via amateur radio or via an 800 number that is given out to the classes,” said Skywarn certified volunteer Paul Reinhardt. “It can be (dangerous), but one of the aspects of the class is to teach people the best place they can spot from, so they are not put in harm’s way.”

The Macomb County Amateur Radio Public Service Corps is one of the local coordinator entities that sponsor Skywarn in Macomb County. The Macomb County ARPSC will team up with the Macomb County Office of Emergency Management to offer three Skywarn classes throughout April. The classes are free and open to anyone, regardless of age or residence.

The classes will take place in Room 100B of the Macomb Intermediate School District Room from 6:30 to 9 p.m. on April 3 and 16, and from 9:30 a.m. to noon on April 20. The Macomb County Intermediate School is located at 44001 Garfield in Clinton Township.

Attendees are asked to arrive 30 minutes prior to start times.

But Skywarn is just one function performed by the Macomb County demographic of licensed amateur radio operators.

Reinhardt — who, in a larger capacity, is the emergency coordinator and races coordinator of the Macomb County ARPSC — said there are about 2,200 Macomb County amateur radio operators registered with the Federal Communications Commission.

Most just have an interest in talking back and forth with people around the world, a pastime amateur radio operators call “rag-chewing.” But some of them have found a functional and necessary use for their hobby — often called “ham radio” — in their free time with the Macomb County ARPSC.

“We provide backups, emergency communications for these county emergency management offices and the city emergency management offices throughout Macomb County,” Reinhardt said. “We are specialists in adverse communication conditions — no power, no electricity. We carry our own gear.”

The radios are beneficial because they access not only other radios on the local UHF/VHF frequencies, but also those on worldwide HF frequencies.

Outside of Skywarn training, Reinhardt said the Macomb County ARPSC is looking to attract more licensed amateur radio operators to join. For those who aren’t licensed, the ARPSC will offer technician-level classes for people to get their amateur radio licenses.

Reinhardt said Macomb County ARPSC attendance tends to rise after a major public emergency, like the 2003 blackout that left much of the North and Midwest U.S. powerless for the better part of two days.

At the time, the cellphone network was beginning to overload. Because amateur radios run independent of the power grid, the Macomb County ARPSC was able to provide a reliable network of communications between hospitals and the county emergency operating center.

In the two years following the blackout, group membership surged from 80-90 radio operators to about 150 radio operators.

“When an incident like that happens, people do come out of the woodwork. People do want to help,” Reinhardt said.

Still, it’s better to have people familiar with the Macomb County ARPSC in advance of an emergency. The problem is that radio operators who haven’t worked with the ARPSC before may not be up to its speed on terminology and protocols, he said.

“If the people haven’t worked with us, they could be part of the problem instead of being part of the solution,” Reinhardt added. “I’m not saying that they’re going to hurt themselves, but they might do something incorrectly, or they might order something incorrectly that would either delay or put at risk some of the operations.”

Many radio operators belong to multiple amateur radio clubs at once.

Most of the time, however, Macomb County ARPSC members are unseen, attending
public events, like runs and parades, ready to jump in and lend a helping radio to get some medical attention.

Andy Young, of Warren, is among the Macomb County ARPSC’s regular attendees.

One night, when Young was in high school, he drove a girl home from a dance. Arriving at her home, the girl’s dad called him in to take a look at his amateur radio equipment and spoke with somebody on the spot.

Young was hooked and came back to the house several more times. Never to see the girl — instead to see her dad.

“I walked down a couple of steps into this little room, and there was all this electrical radio stuff in there. He said, ‘Come here; I want to show you something,’” Young said. “I sat down there, and he contacted a person in Greenland.”

Young was hooked. He went back to the house several times, eventually earning his amateur radio license operators.

“You sit there, and you’re in a little room, and the whole world was opening up to you.”

To register for Skywarn training, call Keith Kutchenmeister, of Macomb County Emergency Management, at (586) 469-6392.

To register for the ARPSC, email Reinhardt at