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Friday, April 30, 2010

You never know who's listening...

Last Saturday night, before this whole brouhaha with K8JSM stirred up a hornet's nest, I did something I wasn't sure I'd ever be doing again - participate in a SKYWARN net.

My friend Jason was recently appointed the coordinator for the area and this was to be his first real test in that role. He was used to it, though, since he and I would team up with a couple of others and run the nets years ago. When a new coordinator was named, all he would do is call Jason or another friend of mine, Tom, and get them to run the nets. So they were used to the pressure. I decided to listen in and help, because that's what friends do for one another...

The weather system that moved through had already killed 10 people in Mississippi and was bearing down on East Tennessee.

The National Weather Service (NWS) had been sending out messages warning people about the severity of the system 48 hours beforehand. The last time I recall the NWS being that cautious was when a tornado tore through Mossy Grove several years before. However, by the time it arrived around midnight Saturday night/Sunday morning, it lost most of its energy and was scattered storms.

It still managed to put an E-F2 tornado in Greenback, just southeast of where I live.

As that tornado was touching down, one local TV station was on the air broadcasting the storm's approach to Knoxville.

As I tuned in to the net, several people were checking in and reporting the usual - heavy winds, lotsa lightning, nothing happening, my bunions are killing me...the typical stuff we'd normally get.

But then, one ham who was doing an overnight paper route called in to report he was in contact with another delivery person who "saw a tornado" in Greenback.

In the past, I usually shunned this type of 3rd party reporting. I recall one such net where we spent 15 minutes scrambling to get confirmation because someone heard on a police scanner that the fire department was reporting a tornado down in Anderson County near Oak Ridge, and it set off a panic. That report ended up being discounted, but it tied up our net as we struggled to get some sort of visual confirmation from those listening, many of whom ran to their police scanners to listen for the report from the fire department.

But something was different about this report. I knew the guy reporting it and he wouldn't just throw a report out like this without some sort of credible evidence (he and Jason are close friends and I'm sure Jason lectured him about it a dozen times over). Dwight (the ham reporting) made sure to preface his report and said "I'm getting this '3rd party', but another driver just told me he saw a tornado in the Greenback community."

So, I decided I was going to run upstairs into the living room and see what the meteorologists were reporting on TV.

No sooner than I step out of the radio room do I hear one of the two meteorologists on TV exclaim: "And we've just received CONFIRMATION of a tornado in Greenback, this is by AMATEUR RADIO..."

I about had a heart attack.

My first reaction was "what weather net are they listening to?" and I scrambled back to the radio to start scanning for other nets (none were taking place other than in northern Georgia and middle Tennessee) and I quickly grabbed the mic and told Jason to "call me immediately" so that I could let him know the TV station was listening, and possibly erroneously reporting a touchdown. No sooner did I un-key the mic when another ham piped in that the TV station was listening and reporting the tornado touching down.

Well now that the cat was out of the bag, we (as in all of us on the net) had to spend 5+ minutes doing damage control, stating repeatedly that the report was 3rd party, unconfirmed, and that we were working to get visual sighting of damage or of the tornado.

Suddenly other hams start reporting that they're getting reports of ambulance and fire dispatches to homes damaged by tornados and other emergencies. The hams were using specific addresses, and that was always a big no-no when I was calling the nets.

Eventually, the TV station corrected their report, but did mention reports of emergency dispatches were being sent to the same addresses we were hearing, indicating something happened out in Greenback.

Eventually, it came to pass that there was indeed a tornado in Greenback, but the rule of thumb we always employed was not to confirm what we ourselves didn't see.

Dwight didn't do anything wrong, because he did preface that he was getting the information 3rd-hand. However, the TV station was either rushing to get the story out on the air or was not entirely hearing the report by Dwight, and assumed that the tornado was confirmed.

Technically speaking, we couldn't confirm if a tornado did touchdown (that's the NWS's job when they do damage surveys after the fact) but the last thing I want to see is SKYWARN in East Tennessee getting discredited because we're hollering "TORNADO!" when in fact it's not been confirmed, or just something we hear elsewhere.

It's been a couple years since I was involved in SKYWARN. It's gonna take a little bit of time to get used to things again. Getting things back on track is going to have to be priority one, but getting the media on track with what we do is apparently another priority entirely.

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