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skywarn logo SKYWARN Spotter Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)


Here is a list of frequently asked questions about the SKYWARN program or severe storm spotting for the La Crosse NWS office.

Main NWS La Crosse contact for spotter training is Todd Shea, Warning Coordination Meteorologist.

Last Updated: 2/10/20

What is SKYWARN?

SKYWARN is the volunteer program of storm spotters that relay real-time weather information to the National Weather Service. Check out the National SKYWARN web page - click here.

Who can be a spotter?

Anyone. Typically storm spotters are volunteer fire departments, law enforcement, and amateur radio operators because they are often mobile and have very efficient modes of communication. Individual spotters can still participate by passing their information along to their main county contact or the La Crosse NWS directly.

Why does the NWS need storm spotters?

The National Weather Service is responsible for issuing severe weather warnings that alert people when a potential threat will affect their area. To do this, we study the environment leading up to a severe weather event in great detail and monitor technologically advanced Doppler Radar data. This technology does have limitations though. By adding in real-time reports from what the storm is actually doing makes our warnings that much more accurate, credible, and timely. We also use spotter reports to help verify if severe weather is or did occur during the official warning. The NWS will ALWAYS need storm spotters. There are roughly 1500 storm spotters in our County Warning Area.

How do I become a spotter?

The first step is to attend a spotter training class in your area. These are typically held in the early spring (March or April) and provide you with the basics and contact information you'll need to get started. You may also want to contact your county Emergency Management director to find out how you can get involved locally.

A good way to get involved is to become an amateur radio operator. You can get your license, a radio, and talk with other spotters on ham radio frequencies in the region, who communicate directly with the La Crosse NWS.

Is there a cost for the training?

No. The National Weather Service provides training for groups (usually countywide) free of charge.

Do I need to pre-register before the training?

Usually not. In most cases the training is open to the public. All you have to do is show up.

Do I need to bring anything to the training class?

Typically not, but if you want to take notes, bring a pen, pencil, and paper.

Is there a minimum age requirement to become a spotter?

Because of the complexity of severe thunderstorms and the potential dangers involved, spotting is recommended for adults (18 yrs or older). High school and Middle school students are welcome to attend the classes with a parent or other adult.

When are spotter training classes held?

The La Crosse NWS office usually conducts training during March and April. Classes are normally held during the evening hours, Monday through Thursday. Sometimes an afternoon class is scheduled.

Are classes rescheduled due to bad weather?

Although ironic, Yes - normally they are rescheduled if they were cancelled because of hazardous winter weather or on-going severe thunderstorms. With most training scheduled in March or April, winter storms are possible and have caused us to cancel and reschedule in the past. Check the on-line schedule for the latest training dates.

How do I find the training schedule?

Check our spotter training schedule at: Press releases for individual training sessions are also sent to area newspapers, television, and radio stations. You can also check with your county Emergency Management director.

How long is a typical training class?

Usually two (2) hours or less.

What is the training like?

An interactive multimedia presentation is given by a meteorologist, including various images and video loops from past storms in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Brochures are also available. Some locations host the class with snacks or refreshments.

Will I get paid for being a spotter?

No. Storm spotting is a volunteer service. A spotter can help out their community by being the "eyes" of the National Weather Service.

Will I get an official ID, Certificate, or spotter number?

The La Crosse NWS office does not assign spotter IDs, numbers, or distribute certificates. Some counties do assign IDs and numbers though which you obtain at the training class in their county. Contact your county Emergency Management director for any local policies.

Who typically deploys SKYWARN spotters?

Usually the county (911/dispatch, Sheriff Dept., Emergency Management director) deploys their spotter networks. Amateur radio operators may activate their networks as well. The National Weather Service may request spotters to deploy in a particular area but it is up to the individual group to decide when to go out.  Spotter can sign up to the NWS La Crosse Spotter Activation Notification System but this is NOT meant to replace established call out procedures.

Spotters should be deployed anytime thunderstorms threaten their community. A WATCH is a good time to prepare. A WARNING is often too late to deploy. Spotter networks need to be proactive and position themselves before storms move in. The National Weather Service tries to provide the groups with as much information as possible but may not always be able to contact each county or each spotter group. Use NOAA Weather Radio as another source of severe weather information.

Use our Hazardous Weather Outlooks as a way to stay ahead of a severe weather risk or to plan when deployment may be needed. You can also view the daily convective outlooks or severe weather risks for the next three (3) days at the Storm Prediction Center's Outlook page.

Who organizes local spotter networks?

Spotter groups are typically run within each county, and hence are usually organized by the county Emergency Management director. It varies from county to county. Amateur radio operators often work through clubs. In some cases fire departments organized themselves.

Who organizes and schedules the spotter training class?

Usually the training class is scheduled and organized by the county Emergency Management director. They work with the Warning Coordination Meteorologist (WCM) at the local NWS office to pick a date that works best for the group.

If you would like to organize a class, check with your county Emergency Management director first. Make sure a class is not already scheduled in your area or in a neighboring county. Minimum attendance should be 25 so ensure you have enough interest first. You can also contact Warning Coordination Meteorologist Todd Shea.

Can I attend training in a different county?

Sure. Training is not held in every county every year so this may be your only option. The material presented is basically the same for each talk. Spotter procedures may be different in each county though. For specifics in your area, be sure to contact your county Emergency Management director.

Why can't training be held in my community?

The location chosen for training in a county can vary. Some spots are used because of their central location in the county. Some are used because of size limitations of the group or equipment needed. Some counties move the location of the training from year to year. Spotter groups may need to travel a small distance in order to make a nearby session. Since the NWS often travels several hours to give training, we expect spotter groups to drive the 15 miles or less it takes to make most nearby talks.

Why isn't training be held in my county this year?

Often times the NWS will coordinate spotter training sessions with county Emergency Management directors. In some areas, counties will alternate training with neighboring counties, hold training every other year, or may not be having training this year due to low expected attendance. Other workload issues concerning Homeland Security may also force training to be skipped. You can always attend training in a neighboring county.

Will I get to chase storms or become a storm chaser?

Not really. SKYWARN is a storm spotter program. Spotters typically monitor storms in their local area and report real-time conditions back to the National Weather Service. Storm chasers typically drive many miles, hunt down storms, and are not familiar with the communities they are visiting. They often take video or photos of storms for hobby, education, or research but may not report their observations during the storm. Much of the video used in training though is borrowed from storm chasers.

Is an Advanced Spotter Training class available?

At the current time, the La Crosse NWS office conducts training that covers basic to advanced material in one session. Occasionally a class that covers additional storm observation tools is presented.

Where can I learn more about severe thunderstorms or tornadoes?

There is a lot of information via the Internet about severe weather (see links below). Some universities have material on-line you can use to educate yourself. Consider taking a class on meteorology at a local college or university. The information provided in our spotter training class is all we expect of our spotters.

How often do I need to come to training?

The La Crosse NWS recommends spotters attend a training session at least every other year. Some new information or spotting ideas are presented each year to keep the training as fresh as possible.

Does the NWS do other types of presentations besides spotter training?

Yes. Severe weather safety is a common presentation we give to groups but we can modify a program to fit your needs. Contact Warning Coordination Meteorologist Todd Shea for other details.

Can I storm spot from home?

Certainly. You can send a message to the La Crosse NWS via the Internet using our Instant Message feature. You can also call us directly via the telephone number distributed during our training sessions.

How do I find out more about the storm spotting program?

Contact Warning Coordination Meteorologist Todd Shea for other details. Also check out the following paper for history - Spotter History.