Metro

Ham radio volunteers behind weather warning system

Ham radio operator Rob Macedo inside the National Weather Service Headquarters in Taunton, where he occasionally volunteers.
Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe
Ham radio operator Rob Macedo inside the National Weather Service Headquarters in Taunton, where he occasionally volunteers.

TAUNTON — It was late afternoon, and a set of thunderstorms was working its way from Vermont into Western Massachusetts. One particular cell was dropping precipitation from high in the atmosphere, and forecasters feared dangerous hail along the Deerfield River.

The National Weather Service made the call: severe thunderstorm warning. In a corner of the agency’s office, Rob Macedo picked up his amateur radio and began his efforts to roust the agency’s army of weather spotters.

Doppler radar can tell a trained meteorologist a lot about the weather, but it’s hard to know what’s going on in any one place without seeing it from the ground. For help determining whether a storm is a real threat, the Weather Service relies on the accounts of ham radio-equipped volunteers.

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The storm system was moving over the small town of Buckland, and nobody there was responding to Macedo’s entreaties. Had the Weather Service been quick enough in issuing the warning? Equally worrisome: Had they overreacted? Issue too many warnings and people might stop heeding them.

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Forecasters monitored Hurricane Joaquin last week, looking down on it from satellites above and sending hurricane-hunter planes through the clouds. But if such a storm were to come ashore, the accounts of spotters on the ground would become crucial.

How much rain is falling? Are there damaging winds? These are key questions as emergency management agencies respond to any storm, especially the most dangerous ones.

The Weather Service has about 8,000 trained spotters in the area of Southern New England covered by the Taunton office. They’ve all undergone a roughly three-hour course that shows them some meteorological basics: why tornadoes form and how to spot them developing; how to measure snow depth; the best way to describe the size of hail.

It’s all part of a program ominously named SKYWARN.

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There are many ways to report a weather observation. Some people use an online system provided by the weather service. Some call in by telephone.

But the backbone of the spotter team is composed of amateur or “ham” radio operators — about 3,000 of them — who relish a big storm as an opportunity to put their communication skills to use.

Glenn Field, the warning coordination meteorologist at Taunton, said the hams are an important piece of the weather emergency infrastructure.

“The amateur radio network is so extensive that we are able to get reports very quickly throughout our region,” he said. “Amateur radio can be the only means of communication in a really severe storm — like a hurricane, for example.”

If phone lines go down, power goes out, and the Internet stops working, amateur radios can continue working with battery power.

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Chief among the volunteers is Macedo, a 41-year-old senior manager at the data-storage company EMC Corp. He works nearby and has a flexible enough schedule that he can run out and man his ham radio when the weather turns.

‘It always feels good to know what’s happening on the ground.’

Macedo spends 15 to 30 hours per week on the spotter program, though it can be much less in calm periods. He takes the job seriously. It’s something he sees as more duty than pastime.

“It’s more than a hobby, for sure, so we try to give it a very high level of dedication,” he said. “It’s something you just manage your time and do accordingly.”

As the recent storm continued to roll through sparsely populated Buckland, Field tried working the phones to find out whether anybody had seen anything. Spotters usually have their phone numbers listed with the National Weather Service. Nobody picked up.

Macedo was logged into a computer as he sat by his radio. He messaged a Facebook group of SKYWARN participants, and also logged into AOL Instant Messenger to consult other hams.

Ham radio operators like to refer to the technology as the original social network. Long before the Internet allowed instantaneous, remote interaction on a grand scale, hams were making a sport of how many people they could contact with their sets.

Far from obviating the need for ham radios, enthusiasts say, online services have enhanced their ability to communicate, allowing them to bridge gaps in their network.

“There’s a common misnomer that the social media world and the Internet and cellphones and all that has supplanted ham radio,” said Sean Kutzko, public relations manager at the American Radio Relay League , a national association of amateur radio enthusiasts. “Ham radio operators simply took all this new technology and integrated it.”

Interest in ham radio appears to be growing. The number of licensed operators in the United States has been rising in recent years, and by last fall had reached an all-time high of 723,771.

Though many of those users don’t pick up their radios every day, Kutzko said he’s seen a marked increase in enthusiasm.

Well into the recent storm warning, Macedo’s radio crackled to life. One ham had heard another ham’s account of pea-sized hail in Buckland and passed it along.

Though the hail was not as large as officials expected it to be, it still showed that forecasters got an early read on the storm’s capability. For Macedo, personal reports like this help the public take storm dangers seriously.

“It always feels good to know what’s happening on the ground,” he said. “It tells people that, ‘Yes, it’s actually happening, and that if it’s coming my way, I need to go take cover.’ ”

Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe

Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.