DALLAS -- Even with the benefit of satellite and radar technology, a National Weather Service meteorologist can't tell what conditions are on the ground better than a person watching the weather from their window.
"We have radar and satellite, but those tools don't tell us what is actually going on on the ground," said NWS meteorologist Chris Collins. "That's why we depend on weather spotters."
Weather spotters are volunteers trained to watch and report weather phenomena to the weather service.
Collins and Tiffany Brown, also a NWS meteorologist, held a weather spotter training class at the Dallas Fire Station on May 18 to recruit more people to keep their eyes on the sky as part of the NWS's SkyWarn Spotter Program.
Collins said reports from weather spotters are critical at times when weather conditions change rapidly.
He used an example of a tornado that touched down several times in a 25-minute period in Vancouver, Wash. on Jan. 10, 2008, leaving behind substantial damage. The weather service was about to issue a severe thunderstorm warning, based on what they were seeing on radar, when a spotter called the weather service office to report seeing a funnel cloud.
Weather spotter responsibilities aren't always so exciting. They report heavy rain and snow, high winds, freezing rain, large hail and flood conditions. Spotters measure rain and snowfall, as well.
Albany resident Katerina Masvidal and her husband, Tony, were two of the 15 people in attendance at the May 18 class. The couple moved here from the East Coast, and took the training to be more informed about Northwest weather patterns.
"I think information is empowerment," Katerina Masvidal said. "The more people who understand what they are looking at, the safer we are."
Bryant Bischof of Salem has been a weather spotter for years and attended the training class as a refresher.
"I've always been interested in the weather," he said. "My wife and I have been watching weather for 37 years."
Bischof's wife, Robin, said they even take their hobby with them on trips. She said one of the most incredible weather phenomenon they have seen is flash flooding in Phoenix, Ariz.
"Anywhere we go, we like to figure out what is going on," she said.
Despite sharing her husband's love of weather watching, Robin only became a weather spotter on May 18.
"I'm official now," she said. "I'm going to be an official spotter."
Brown and Collins said in many cases timely SkyWarn reports can keep people out of danger in conditions that are turning dangerous. Collins said that is especially true in Oregon, where severe storms are fairly rare and people aren't monitoring the weather reports as much.
"People are caught off-guard here more because they don't have weather radios," Collins said. "Spotters here, I could argue, are more important because people aren't paying attention."
To learn more about the SkyWarn Program go to www.wrh.noaa.gov/pqr/skywarn.php or call the Portland NWS office at 503-261-9246.