Ham Radio Operations at
During March 1998, NWS MLB applied for, and received an amateur radio (ham) "club" license and "vanity" call-sign (WX4MLB). Unlike CB radio, ham radio operators must have an FCC license to operate. While there are several radio spectrum "bands" (e.g. 2, 10, 15, 20, 40, 80 meters) that hams can use depending on their particular license class (technician, general, extra) and communication needs (distance), all SKYWARN operations from NWS MLB are currently conducted on 2 meters (VHF, 144-148 MHz). These frequencies are just below the marine radio spectrum (156-158 MHz) and NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) frequencies (162 MHz), and allow communication throughout east central Florida. An HF radio is also available when longer distance communication is required, primarily for hurricane situations and when emergency back-up is required between NWS Melbourne and NWS San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Within the NWS Melbourne SKYWARN cubicle, there are two Kenwood 2-meter transceivers (see picture above). The radio on the left remains on a frequency of 144.390 to support APRS (a type of "packet" system which provides weather observations from area hams and displays them on the PC below the radios). The radio on the right is used for SKYWARN, and is tuned to certain frequencies depending on what geographic areas severe weather is expected. There are three antennas available for the Kenwood radios. Two antennas are omni-directional (Ringo Ranger, G6 Hustler) and one is a uni-directional (beam) antenna. Typically, the Ringo Ranger remains attached to the APRS Kenwood, and the beam remains attached to the SKYWARN Kenwood. The HF radio is an Icon 746Pro and the permanent antenna consists of a Cushcraft R7000 Vertical.
The goals of SKYWARN operations are two-fold; 1) to provide information to the hams concerning the potential for severe weather so they can prepare themselves and others and 2) to receive severe weather reports from the hams to assist with issuance/extension of warnings/statements/advisories etc. Many SKYWARN hams operate from remote areas (home stations or in vehicles) and/or have access to other communication networks to relay information.
Hams can often provide real-time reports of damaging weather. For example, when an F2 tornado struck Barefoot Bay during Tropical Storm Gordon (1994), hams relayed a report while the tornado was on the ground. Confirmation from an official source didn't reach the office until over 30 minutes later! Another good example was during the devastating tornado outbreak of 22-23 February 1998, when hams provided extremely timely, first-hand reports of tornadoes, extreme damage, and people trapped within buildings.
Long standing and excellent relationships exist between NWS Melbourne and the SKYWARN groups within east central Florida. Each individual county has an active communication network and operates SKYWARN networks (nets) on frequencies determined by nearby "repeaters." Repeaters are basically radio stations which use tall antennas to receive signals, then retransmit the signal so they can be heard over wider geographic ranges.
Nine staff members at NWS MLB have ham radio licenses (see table below). Before or during severe weather episodes, if time permits, these hams may ask for weather reports, for example: This is WX4MLB at the National Weather Service in Melbourne. Weather radar indicates a strong thunderstorm developing along the sea breeze over Cocoa. The storm will likely move south into Viera, Suntree, and Melbourne and may intensify to a severe storm in the next half hour. WX4MLB will continue to monitor this frequency for any reports. NWS MLB staff may also request for SKYWARN activation.
Once per year, during the first weekend in December, a 24-hour communications test is conducted for SKYWARN operations at NWS offices throughout the country. Temporary antennas, and numerous transmitter locations are set up at each office, often with emergency power generators. Large groups of hams then make contacts with other radio operators throughout the world.
There are four general types of Severe Weather SKYWARN activation used by NWS Melbourne:
(1) Informal Activation - This may be requested by WFO MLB when marginal severe weather is expected or a pulse storm (i.e. short duration) may affect a given county. In this situation, WFO MLB will contact designated county radio communicators, and request them to solicit reports, but not to "take over" the frequency from normal ham radio use. With informal activation, reports can still be received AND hams can use their repeaters for non-weather communications as well. Sometimes, NWS Melbourne hams will tune to a desired frequency when a short-lived/pulse storm is imminent and query anyone on frequency for reports of severe weather.
(2) Self Activation (formal) - Most SKYWARN hams follow the weather and NWS forecasts closely on a daily basis. If severe weather is imminent, they will often activate their nets by themselves. If they receive a severe report, they will call the NWS and relay the information. Requests for "Self Activation" are indicated within NWS MLB Hazardous Weather Outlooks (HWO). The HWO are available on the Internet and are broadcast upon NOAA Weather Radio (NWR). An example of a call-to-action would be "HAM RADIO OPERATORS ARE ASKED TO SELF ACTIVATE SKYWARN NETS TONIGHT WHEN SEVERE WEATHER BECOMES IMMINENT FOR THEIR COUNTIES." This is the most common type of activation.
(3) Requested Activation (formal) - This would be a situation when meteorologists are fairly confident a severe weather episode is going to occur over a portion of east central Florida. Generally, 6-12 hours ahead of the event, contacts are made with hams in each county severe weather is expected to verify that they are ready and will activate in advance. During these situations, the hams may make occasional notifications on their repeators indicating the expected timing/severity of the approaching system. This type of activation typically occurs less than a half-dozen times per year.
(4) Request for hams to operate SKYWARN from WFO MLB - An agreement has been made between NWS Melbourne and the Brevard County Amateur Radio Service (BEARS) for one or more of their members of their group to be detailed to the weather office to assist with communications during a significant severe weather outbreak or a hurricane landfall. Generally, operators will be requested if forecasters are highly confident that significant or widespread severe weather will occur for more than a few hours and office manpower will be too busy with forecasts/warnings to operate the radio. This type of activation typically occurs only 0-2 times per year and usually occurs in conjunction with (3), above.