updated 3/15/2006 1:46:39 PM ET 2006-03-15T18:46:39

It's hard to do in the middle of a drought, but imagine for a moment that a storm is approaching. Clouds are churning, the wind is blowing and the sound of the thunder lets you know the storm is moving closer. Suddenly, the storm sirens go off.

Would you run and grab your child's bicycle helmet? If not, it's something you should consider adding to your family's emergency plan, said Kevin Brown, a senior forecaster for the National Weather Service in Norman.

"It's amazing how many times helmets save lives," said Brown. "Kids' bicycle helmets, motorcycle helmets, even your old high school football helmet; they all will protect your head from flying debris."

It was one of the many tips he passed on recently during a Severe Weather Seminar here.

The seminar was designed to give local storm spotters the information needed to safely observe severe storms and to report more clearly their observations.

According to Gary Ball, Stephens County's emergency management director, most of the local storm spotters are law enforcement personnel and amateur ham radio operators.

"We really depend on them," said Ball.

Storm spotters are necessary, said Brown, because even the most advanced radar can detect only what is happening 2,000 feet above the ground, and higher.

"And a lot goes on below that 2,000-foot level," Brown said. "Even with all the advanced algorithms and computers, radar is not that accurate. It only infers what might be happening. We just don't get the whole picture from radar."

A storm spotter is a volunteer who observes and reports. The goal is not to find a tornado, said Brown. Instead, the emphasis is on safety, accuracy and timeliness of the observation.

He illustrated the point with the real-life example of a tornado that appeared, on radar, to be following Interstate 40 to the east, but that actually turned almost straight north. Thanks to a storm spotter, he said, the NWS was able to warn residents in its path.

"That's why spotter reports are very, very important."

Realistically, there is a low probability that a spotter will see a high-impact storm — one with golf-ball sized hail, 70-plus mile per hour winds, or a tornado, said Brown.

Still, being a spotter could be dangerous, so it's best to try not to spot alone, to always have an escape route in mind and always be watchful.

To explain that point, Brown showed video of a tornado taken by a man who was then injured when a second, more powerful tornado "snuck up on him" from behind.

Another hazard for a storm spotter is lightning.

"If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to be struck," he said, and urged the volunteers to remain in their vehicles when spotting and to keep their radio microphones in a holder or passenger seat. It also helps, he said, to know CPR, just in case.

Brown said the drought, wildfires and flash floods also are considered hazardous weather events that may require spotters. He warned spotters not to drive through any moving water, because flash flooding kills more Americans than any other weather phenomenon except excessive heat in the summer. And most of those deaths occur in vehicles at night when the moving water is hard to see.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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