Critical information is transmitted to the National Weather Service, emergency managers and local television meteorologists

ALLEN COUNTY, Ind. (WANE) – Veteran storm spotter Jay Farlow goes back far enough to recall the devastating 1974 tornadoes in Indiana and Xenia, Ohio.

As a ham radio enthusiast at Miami Junior High School in Fort Wayne, he went through the training then to become a storm spotter. Farlow is now the leader of the local Skywarn storm spotters who are also ham radio operators, he said, as he sat in his home office surrounded by technical equipment, including a large screen monitor with a colorful weather map.

Wednesday could be one of the busiest days of his career as a storm spotter with tornadoes and hail possible.

Storm spotters here are trained by the local National Weather Service to make sense and report what they see. There are about 160 storm spotters in Allen County and 1,800 volunteer storm spotters in a 37-county area that includes northeast Indiana, lower Michigan and northwest Ohio, Farlow said. Skywarn is a program through the National Weather Service.

Storm spotters know when the threat is real. Not every low hanging cloud is a funnel cloud or a tornado, he said.

For it to be a funnel cloud or a tornado, “it has to be spinning. It can be difficult to see in the distance and it needs to look smoother rather than raggedy,” he said.

Training to become a storm spotter takes about two hours.

“A couple of meteorologists from the National Weather Service do a slide presentation and they talk about the importance of spotters and why radar doesn’t show everything,” said Farlow who recently went through a refresher course.

Jay Farlow, veteran storm spotter, simulates the transmitting of storm data.

“They teach how to spot safely, how to tell the difference in the sky (for something) that looks scary and isn’t or it’s something they need to know about right away,” Farlow said.

Emergency responders often get calls from people who incorrectly identify funnel clouds or tornadoes, Farlow said.

“Storm spotters are taught to differentiate between the two.”

On a day like tomorrow, spotters will often choose a location southwest of their community as tornados and funnel clouds normally go from southwest to northeast. This allows them to phone or call in a problem so a community can protect itself, he said.

Storm spotters look for big open fields along rural roads that will provide a good view. Depending on the time of day, there might be a half dozen spotters working until 5 p.m. When work is over and another half dozen come on.

The National Weather Service never dictates where storm spotters go.

“(They) don’t want to be liable for that decision,” Farlow said.

Storm spotters keep it professional even when excitement grows.

“Their goal is to transmit information clearly – what they saw, where they saw it and the time they saw it,” Farlow said. Lines can get jammed, but there are at least three options for transmitting information –  social media like Facebook or Twitter, over a ham radio or a phone call.

“We have one channel we all share. What has to happen…people have to take turns. We have this whole procedure. We wait for permission to go ahead and then give details,” said Farlow who spent many years in television and radio.

Tomorrow, as the leader of the spotters, Farlow will take the information coming in and send it immediately to the National Weather Service through a text chat.

“As soon as I hit enter, that little text message gets seen immediately by NWS meteorologists, all the emergency managers and all the meteorologists at the TV stations,” Farlow said.

He recalled one instance during the tornado in Woodburn in 2016. “I typed a report, hit enter and 15 seconds later I heard Nicholas (Ferreri) on the screen relaying that information on the air.”