Spotting trouble: Volunteers carry a heavy load when weather turns severe

Spotting trouble: Volunteers carry a heavy load when weather turns severe

While most people retreat inside during severe-storm alerts, Robert Russian jumps in his pickup in search of bad weather, especially tornadoes.

Armed with several radios and a tablet computer displaying the radar, the Pesotum volunteer firefighter goes to his usual spot just south of town along Illinois 45 near the Interstate 57 exchange, where he has a vast view of approaching weather.

His eyes on the sky, Russian uses his years of weather-spotter training to identify and report what he sees — not only to his fellow weather watchers in Pesotum but also to Champaign County Emergency Management officials and the National Weather Service in Lincoln.

The job doesn't pay — and, frankly, "I don't know if I enjoy it or not, at this point," Russian joked — but it's a responsibility the 15-year volunteer weather spotter takes seriously. After all, the safety of his village of 534 depends on it.

All 10 volunteer weather spotters in Pesotum double as firefighters.

"We are used to going into the problem area," said Russian, Pesotum's fire chief, emergency services coordinator and resident in charge of the device that activates the village's lone warning siren.

If he's not in key weather-watching spots around Pesotum, then he's at the emergency services office at the village hall, gathering and relaying information to and from other spotters, county officials and the NWS.

Like Pesotum, other Champaign County towns outside C-U make their own calls of when to activate severe-weather sirens, though officials rely on weather spotter reports, NWS data and the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency.

"You take that information ... and decide whether to set off the tornado siren," Russian said.

A 'very vigilant' bunch

It's strictly volunteer work, but around here, there's no shortage of people signing up to watch for severe weather.

In March, more than 100 attended a training session at Parkland College. Director John Dwyer says the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency has trained volunteer spotters across the county, about 38 people, on top of the groups of spotters in individual towns, like Pesotum's.

During the June 10 storm that damaged property on Champaign's west side, Dwyer said about 15 volunteer monitors were reporting what they saw.

"It's a good core group of folks who are very vigilant," Dwyer said. "The public has no idea how many folks are dedicated to doing what they can for public safety. It's a whole big, collaborative system that's trying to do what's best for the public in a situation that could be very fast ... fast developing."

Just as NWS radar can't pick up everything, weather spotters can't be everywhere, making collaboration crucial. The county's 80-plus warning sirens — intended to alert people outdoors to get inside — shouldn't be activated unless a tornado is either confirmed or highly probable to develop, officials say.

"You don't want to set those sirens off all the time or then people start ignoring them," said Russian, who experienced the boy-who-cried-wolf effect several years ago, when Pesotum's siren sounded multiple times during perfectly calm weather. Whether a malfunction or sabotage, siren codes were changed and it never happened again.

But Russian said he heard plenty of comments about a loss of confidence in the siren.

"They are important, but they're just one cog in the wheel," Dwyer said.

Sirens off in Edgar

Two weeks after the storm last month, when sirens didn't sound, Sheriff Dan Walsh announced that Champaign County had tweaked its notification system. Added to the list of things that would trigger the sirens' sounding: a wall cloud with rotation spinning up in the air and approaching our area.

But Walsh also cautioned that the sirens, designed to warn anyone outside at the time, are 1950s technology. Equally important, he said, is that the public use common sense and pay attention to television, radio and weather apps in severe weather cases.

In some parts of the country where outdoor warning sirens have been abandoned altogether, weather spotters remain.

After multiple incidents of sirens going off for no apparent reason in Longmont, Colo., the city decided last year to ditch the system, instead instructing residents to use weather radios and to sign up for NWS alerts and smartphone apps.

Closer to home, Edgar County officials abandoned outdoor warning sirens partly due to cost, encouraging residents to sign up for the Wireless Emergency Notification System, which provides text, e-mail or voice messages when a tornado watch or warning is issued by the NWS. Using GPS technology, the alerts go only to people within the watch or warning area, said Erin Lorenzen, assistant coordinator of the county's emergency disaster agency.

But, she said, the county still counts on and provides training for certified spotters, who can report tornado activity directly to the NWS or their agency.

Not as easy as you think

A June 26 storm that spawned a tornado east of Rantoul had a low elevation and weak circulation, "making it a pretty garden-variety thunderstorm," said Steve Hilberg, a retired Illinois State Water Survey meteorologist, a veteran spotter who conducts in-house training for volunteers.

The danger: that type of storm is not easily detectable, he said, so no warning was issued ahead of time.

"Which is why the weather service relies on the spotters," Hilberg said.

In September 2016, when a tornado leveled a house in the Homer area, Dwyer asked Russian to storm-spot in Pesotum, where NWS officials were seeing something on radar.

Russian recalls that the weather didn't at first seem threatening in Pesotum, but he got in his truck and drove north of town anyway, as Dwyer requested. After spotting the cell, he followed it east.

Then, "once it cleared the east side of Philo, it turned into a tornado," Russian said, prompting an official tornado warning. Homer set off its sirens before it hit the area and emergency personnel headed to the area.

"That day, that system we had set up with radios, phones, that all came together, and we were able to get a tornado warning out of that," Russian said. "It really ended up coming together well that day."

Hilberg said people tend to think it's easy to spot a tornado. It's not, he said, especially when it comes to knowing what isn't a tornado. That's why spotter training includes a series of slides showing images that look like the real deal, but aren't.

"It isn't obvious all the time, especially in this part of the country, where we frequently have heavy rain with storms that produce tornadoes," he said. "The rain obscures the features that might lead you to see the tornado or continue to follow it."

'Location, location, location'

And then there's the dilemma that occurs when two spotters two miles apart call in different interpretations of the same storm.

"Like in real estate, its location, location, location," Hilberg said. "If you're in the right spot, you can see everything, but your line of sight may be obscured by rain, trees or whatever."

Ideally, Dwyer added, officials know hours before it hits that a severe system is capable of producing tornadoes. While that was the case in advance of an EF3 tornado that ripped through Gifford on Nov. 17, 2013, Dwyer said, "we just didn't know where" it would strike.

Another challenge: Not all tornadoes appear on NWS radar.

"That's why on-the-ground storm spotters are so valuable," Hilberg said, "because they provide the eyes on the ground, the eyes to see what's actually happening." It's a different perspective than the radar beam in Lincoln, which is set at 6,000 feet and higher and doesn't go all the way to the ground, he added.

During Illinois' peak tornado season — April 1 to June 30 — Hilberg prepares a weekly outlook for weather spotters, so they have a Monday heads-up about when they might be needed. And during weather events, Dwyer sends out messages to spotters letting them know when the emergency management agency is on the radio and ready to receive reports.

"But they can't be available all the time, and we don't go out and spot at night, because that can be extremely dangerous, because you can't see. And that makes it easy to get into trouble real quick," Hilberg said.

"It's 10 times harder at night," he said.

Word to wise: Buy a radio

If Hilberg could offer one piece of advice to everyone in the area, it would be this: Just as every home should have a smoke detector, it would be wise to invest in a weather radio. They're available for as little as $30.

Do not rely only your cellphone, he cautioned.

"The nice thing about (a radio) is when it goes off in your home, there's no missing it," said Hilberg, who's kept one for "forever" on his night stand.

Yes, it can go off in the middle of the night, he said. But if there's a tornado warning in the county at 3 a.m., he wants to know about it.

"If the sirens went away tomorrow, I would have no problem with that," he said. "And in some places, there are no sirens, or you're not in an area to hear them."

Either way, volunteer spotters will remain an important part of the system — be it describing the system that leads to the sirens being sounded or one that prompts that 3 a.m. warning waking a sleeping Hilberg.

"They are all volunteers. They are doing this because they want to help the community," he said.

Twister tidbits

➜ Illinois averages about 50 of the 1,300 tornadoes that occur each year in the U.S. That’s more than any other country.

➜ In a state with 102 counties, 11 of the 20 that spawn the most tornadoes are in central or eastern Illinois. Among them: No. 3 Sangamon, No. 5 McLean, No. 11 Champaign, No. 12 Macon, No. 13 Piatt, No. 16 Douglas and No. 18 Vermilion (18).

➜ Since 1950, the biggest outbreak in Illinois happened on April 19, 1996, when 39 tornadoes — including one that hit Urbana and Ogden — led to one fatality, 74 injuries and more than $100 million in property damage.