Course provides hands-on practice for forecasters to help save lives

Noise emanates from a lab on the fourth floor of the National Weather Center in Norman — 20 plus people are all talking at once, but that’s a good thing.

In just four weeks, more than 95 National Weather Service forecasters completed rigorous week-long workshops as part of the Radar & Applications Course, hosted by NOAA’s Warning Decision Training Division with significant involvement by The University of Oklahoma Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies researchers. The purpose of this Radar & Applications Course is to train newly-hired NWS forecasters on all factors, including the stress, involved in issuing warnings for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flash floods. At workshops hosted at the National Weather Center in Norman, forecasters received hands-on practice before heading back to their home offices to issue real warnings.

Before walking in the door, attendees must complete a difficult 120 hours of online training prepared by instructors like Alex Zwink and Jill Hardy, OU CIMMS research associates with NOAA WDTD.

“There is a massive amount of information to understand, including how the NWS functions,” said Hardy. “We make sure you’re up on all your tools, skills and come here to get an intensive one week workshop where we drill you with simulation material. We mock what a live event would be like. You’re sitting at a desk issuing warnings here exactly as you would do it in your home NWS forecast office.”

Jill Hardy and Alex Zwink, OU CIMMS research associates and with NOAA WDTD, train forecasters using real event data. Using archived data, the WES-2 Bridge is a data playback system allowing training simulations to create a displaced real-time environment.

OU CIMMS and WDTD developed a simulator several years ago called the WES-2 Bridge. The simulator was a new version of the Weather Event Simulator that was built to work with NWS data viewing and warning issuing software known as AWIPS-2.

Using archived data, the WES-2 Bridge is a data playback system allowing training simulations to create a displaced real-time environment. The archived data and the WES-2 Bridge allow forecasters to train using real event data without issuing real warnings to the public

“This is a stressful situation,” Zwink said of issuing warnings. “As they went through school, they may not have had this. In the heat of the moment, they have to make decisions. Sometimes they get discouraged because a lot goes into this but that is why they are here.”

A group of three students is assigned one instructor. The instructor encourages communication between team members, points out things that could be done better and provides input when needed.

“We have a strong philosophy — it’s train as you fight,” Zwink said. “For simulations, we try to replicate what you would expect at your home office so you can get that muscle memory on how you issue warnings and making sure you communicate with team mates, or in this case the people in your home office, and go through the steps you will need to be performing to protect lives and property back home.”

Participants come from all over the country, including Puerto Rico and Hawaii. Hardy said data chosen is just as diverse. WDTD researchers watch for real storms to possibly be used in training simulations, particularly severe thunderstorms, tornadoes and flooding.

“Sometimes the major events aren’t going to be used because it is too easy to see a major supercell moving into a metro. Of course you’re going to have a warning on it,” she said. “Sometimes the more marginal events are the ones we try to grab to make sure we’re giving them some tricky stuff and things they have to think about. We don’t want slam dunks all the time.”

This year, the lab had a more diverse population regarding work experience. WDTD opened the training course to veteran forecasters — some with 20 plus years of experience.

“A lot of technology has changed in 20 years,” Hardy said. “This was a trial run teaching newbies and veterans. For now, I think it is very valuable and it’s worth a lot. We got a good sense of how things are out in the field and how they have evolved. What are the practices people are doing out there and it helps us learn what people are actually doing, which helps us train them.”

National Weather Service forecasters have many tools available during warning operations, and to successfully meet the mission of protecting lives and property, hands-on practice with these tools is absolutely necessary. WDTD and OU CIMMS will host training again next year to help forecasters prepare for severe weather anytime and anywhere.

For more information on WDTD, visit http://www.wdtd.noaa.gov/.

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