Become a Spotter/Frequently Asked Questions

WHAT IS SKYWARN? SKYWARN is a nation wide volunteer network of trained severe weather “storm spotters.” This program was originally developed by the National Weather Service (NWS) in the late 1960’s on how the public can Identify, Evaluate, and Report severe weather events. Today there are between 350,000 to 400,000 volunteers and nearly 150 Skywarn groups.

HOW DOES SKYWARN WORK? When hazardous weather occurs, trained storm spotters report what is happening at their location. In southeast Wisconsin the NWS criteria includes: Tornadoes, Funnel Clouds,  Water Spouts,  Wall Clouds, Flooding,  Winds greater then 40 MPH,  Hail 3/4 inch or larger,  Damage, Visibility less then 1/2 mile, Snow and Ice depths, and Rain Fall reports. All reports require Time-Location-Condition information. Reports are relayed to the NWS offices via unlisted 800 telephone, internet, ham radio frequencies, NAWAS (National Warning System), Spotternetwork, 9-1-1 call enters, and from Twitter or Facebook social networks

WHO IS THE MILWAUKEE AREA SKYWARN ASSOCIATION? (MASA is a Wisconsin registered Non-profit, and federal I-R-S 501(c)3 Tax Exempt corporation providing educational, scientific, and charitable outreach at a local level to support and lessen the burden of the Milwaukee-Sullivan NWS severe weather training programs. MASA is operated and supported by volunteers and urgently need your help and support. Please review our donation "wish list."

WHO CAN BE A STORM SPOTTER? Almost anyone can be storm spotter, they come from all walks of life. Typically they are emergency services personnel , volunteer groups and organizations ham radio operators, cooperative observers or individual citizens. They can young adults to retired. A keen interest in weather and serving  their community is a common bond.

WHY HAVE SPOTTERS? The NWS needs to know what the storms are doing at ground level. Because Doppler radars are designed to look into the heart of storm clouds it cannot see what is happening at ground level. "Ground-truth" storm spotter reports allow the meteorologist to better correlate radar data and spotter reports to issue more accurate and timely weather warnings,  thus protecting life and property.

HOW DO I BECOME A SPOTTER? (1) Attend the annual spring training classes nearest your location, in the next county, or on-line webinars.  They provide the basics and contact information. In Southern Wisconsin these programs are held from about February thru late April. (2) Check our statewide spotter schedule page, or your nearest local NWS office website for times and dates. (3) Study our on-line training  links.  (4) Renew your training at least every other year.

DESCRIBE THE TRAINING PROGRAMS: Unless noted, all programs are free of charge, open to the public, and for beginners. Starting in 2012 some programs will be presented on-line. These programs are called "webinars." Most in-person programs last about 2.5 hours, a question-answer segment, and contact information. Some locations provide snacks and refreshments. Make sure to come early and bring pen and paper for note taking. Training certificates and ID's are usually not issued.


  1. Will I be paid as a storm spotter? No. Storm spotters volunteer their time and resources.
  2. Age limits for spotters? Prefer adults 18 years and older., maturity is essential.
  3. Who is responsible? Spotting can be dangerous, you are responsible for your safety. 
  4. Official I-D badge or training certificates? Some organizations issue them others do not.

AMATEUR RADIO AND SKYWARN: A large percentage of storm spotters are licensed amateur radio operators. Virtually all weather service offices have amateur radio station setups. During selected severe weather events amateur radio operators and other volunteer spotter networks  activate their frequencies to submit reports to local NWS offices. These radio frequencies can be heard on most programmable police scanners. Amateur radio operators have their own reporting criteria. Amateur radio Skywarn activities first appeared in Milwaukee in Spring 1969.

WHO ACTIVATES THE SPOTTERS? The National Weather Service may request spotter activation in a particular region and time, but it is up to the groups and individual spotters as to when they activate. Emergency managers, police and fire personnel, and ham radio groups may all have different activation requirements

Spotters should prepare to activate anytime thunderstorms or active weather is forecasted. A Severe Thunderstorm or Tornado Watch always means activate.  Seriously committed spotters and networks need to be proactive and prepare themselves before storms move in. Keep up with the local forecast and check the daily Hazardous Weather Outlooks (HWO) for your area. The HWO is also broadcast daily on the NOAA Weather Radio stations and provides the heads up information on expected stormy weather. Also subscribe to our funding raising E-mail weather warning system. For regional or U-S outlooks check our Severe Weather Panel page. It shows a 2 day map of all locations that can expect severe weather and 'hot spots' that are being monitored.

WHO ORGANIZES LOCAL SPOTTER GROUPS? It varies by county and organization. Most emergency management personnel and volunteer groups are self organized and all work with the their local NWS Warning Coordination Meteorologists. MASA provides information for all groups and also works very closely with the NWS.

STORM SPOTTER OR STORM CHASER? Both spotters and chasers sometimes perform similar functions. Spotters typically will remain in their community and report their observations from their home, office, or vehicle. Chasers will drive several hundred miles a day to intercept forecasted storms for scientific research, to take personal or media pictures, or for storm chase tours. Chasers may or may not report their observations. Chasing is dangerous and requires an extensive knowledge of storm structure and behavior in order to be safe. Scripted TV shows are not always realistic.

WHERE DO I STORM SPOT FROM? You can storm spot from any location; at home, at work, or on the road.  All stationary spotters must have a safe location to move to, and mobile spotters must have planned escape routes should the situation become life threatening. PRIORITIES (1) Your personal safety,  and (2) Accurate reports.

WHAT EQUIPMENT DO I NEED?  Storm reports are relayed to the NWS via cellphone, smartphone, tablet or computer connected to Facebook, Twitter, or the NWS website.  With your network connected it can be done in 45 seconds.

A HISTORY OF SKYWARN AND STORM SPOTTING: has been written by Dr. Chuck Doswell. Although now retired he is recognized as one of the leading severe storms research scientists. 

History of Storm Spotting

Contact Info:

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