North Texas Hams Respond When Tornados Strike
On April 3, 2012, perfect conditions conducive to tornado activity converged on North Texas. A slow moving front, combined with abnormally warm temperatures and moist air coming in from the south, produced large hail, numerous funnel clouds, and tornados. As the weather worsened, hams in North Texas activated ARES® and RACES nets. Spotters reported their observations to their local Emergency Operations Center, which acted on that information in a timely manner to inform the public of the approaching storms, giving them time to get to safety. A total of 21 confirmed tornados -- including one EF3 and two EF2 twisters -- swept through the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex during the seven hour storm.
According to ARRL North Texas Section Public Information Coordinator Jim Pope, N5JCP, the region suffered extensive damage, but thanks to the assistance of radio amateurs and trained weather spotters who tracked the storm’s path and passed the information on to local officials who in turn passed the information to the public, there were no fatalities and very few injuries.
“In Rowlett -- a city of about 56,000 people in the northwest corner of Dallas County -- hams at the Rowlett Fire and Police dispatch unit received information on an approaching tornado from weather spotters,” Pope told the ARRL. “Because of this advance warning, Rowlett officials activated the sirens, warning its citizens of the imminent storm nine minutes before the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for the area.”
Pope told the ARRL that radio amateurs from across the region provided communications support to the National Weather Service and their local Emergency Operations Centers. In Fort Worth, local ARES® members activated a net 45 minutes before the National Weather Service requested assistance. “We notified our spotters and went into RACES mode per our SOP with the City of Fort Worth,” said ARRL North Texas District Emergency Coordinator (District 4) Gerry Dalton, W5MAY. “We stayed in RACES mode until approximately 4:30 PM. Garry Cooper K5TXC, served as primary net control on 146.940 MHz, coordinating spotter reports to the National Weather service in Fort Worth. The City of Arlington requested an operator come to their Emergency Operations Center about 1:15 PM when the first reports of a touch down had been reported in Burleson. Linda McMillen, W5LMC, reported to the Arlington EOC and started monitoring the 146.940 RACES frequency, along with the 147.140 Arlington Amateur Radio Club repeater where spotters were sent to give damage reports or request city services. The 147.140 net stayed in ARES mode until approx 5:00 that evening.
According to Dalton, most of the senior members of the various cities and counties that were impacted by the storm were at the Texas Department of Emergency Management Homeland Security Conference in San Antonio. “The State Operations Center normally would have been activated in Austin, but since so many members of the TDEM staff and County Emergency Management were at the conference, the State of Texas stood up the State Operations Center on the floor of the convention,” he told the ARRL. “Vendors used their demonstration equipment to bring up WebEOC, which provides situational awareness for the State Emergency Management officials. Tables were setup up and the Incident Command Staff worked from those tables for the next four hours. Live television feeds were available from the Dallas-Fort Worth area so that officials were able to watch much of the destruction in real time.”
In Mesquite -- a city of about 139,000 people located on the western side of Dallas County and overlapping into Kaufman County -- local officials relied on reports from Dallas SKYWARN radio amateurs to make decisions regarding local disaster plans. “Reports from hams in Forney -- the site of the EF3 tornado -- as well as municipal communications between cities resulted in street and cleaning logistics vehicles and personnel being sent from Mesquite to Forney,” Pope explained. “Mesquite also sent about seven police officers to Forney to assist during the first few hours of response.”
In Carrolton -- a city of about 119,000 people located on the northeast side of Dallas County and overlapping into Collin and Denton Counties -- a high school principal requested weather information from ARRL Carrollton Emergency Coordinator Mike Hennifer, KD5ZCF. “We sent him an operator, Hennifer told the ARRL. “He was then able to get information directly from the net that was current and up-to-date from the Emergency Operations Center and from the field.”
Officials in Hunt County -- separated by Rockwall County to the west from Dallas County -- initially told members of the Sabine Valley Amateur Radio Association and ARES® that it was not in need of assistance, but that they should continue to monitor the weather. But around 2 PM, the National Weather Service activated the groups and to contact net control on the 147.16 repeater. The ARES® weather net was started just a few minutes later from the City of Commerce’s Emergency Operations Center. “ARES net control broadcasted updates from the National Weather Service as they were received,” Pope told the ARRL. “They also received reports of golf ball size hail. One storm spotter outside of Commerce reported seeing wall cloud and wind gust up to 48 miles per hour. During the storm, hams at the Commerce EOC reported that they could see ‘visible rotation’ from a tornado. All ARES® communications were done via FM phone on the 147.16 repeater in Greenville, Texas (the county seat), with some traffic also being handled on the 147.02 repeater in Commerce and the 146.78 repeater in Greenville.”
According to Pope, Hunt County suffered very little damage, even though an EF2 tornado came through the county. “We have 5 residences that were totally destroyed and nine others with damage, he said, “but no deaths or injuries. A colt, horse and donkey were killed by flying debris. Hunt County was on the tail end of the tornado touch down, which mainly occurred in Rockwall County.”
The Office of Emergency Management in Dallas requested RACES and SKYWARN net activation around 1 PM the day of the storm. City of Dallas RACES Radio Officer Pat Hykkonnen, N5NPL, initiated a net on the 146.880 Dallas Amateur Radio Club repeater and a SKYWARN net for Dallas County was active by 1:15. “The net handled traffic to the Fort Worth/Dallas National Weather Service office, the City of Dallas Emergency Operations Center, as well as Emergency Operations Center s in Irving, Garland, Richardson, Sachse and numerous others in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex,” he told the ARRL. “Amateur Radio operators provided reports to the served agencies regarding severe weather events, including large, damaging hail, funnels and very destructive tornadoes.”
“This storm received national media attention,” Pope said, “but what did not receive attention was the dedication and commitment of radio amateurs. In every case, Amateur Radio was present and utilized by various Emergency Operations Centers. When asked to provide communication support for a school or business, hams stepped up to the plate and were there. Kudos and thanks go out to the North Texas hams for their dedication and professionalism during this severe weather event.”