The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

June 22, 2013

Volunteer firefighters form backbone of county spotter network

By Cass Rains, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Whenever severe weather nears the area, trained storm spotters are activated across the county to report back with crucial information from the field.

Certified Director of Enid/Garfield County Emergency Management Mike Honigsberg said there are more than 180 storm spotters in the county’s network.

Honigsberg, who is a certified trainer for the National Weather Service, has hosted training for the storm-spotter network and began a certification program for them about three years ago.

“We started this certification program three years ago and we all kind of agreed we’ll go three years and those that attend all three years, and go out in the field when we activate, we would do a certification program,” Honigsberg said. “We have over 180 spotters in the county. The first year we’re certifying 60 or so. I’m happy with that. Next year, we’ll add a whole bunch more.”

He said offering the certification to spotters “is the least thing I can do.”

“These people dedicate themselves to public safety and that’s what it’s all about,” Honigsberg said.

He said severe weather dictates when spotters are called and activated.

“Sometimes we scramble and other times we have time to get out there and get set up,” Honigsberg said. “They know everything is coming. I do briefings with them, too. I send out the pages and emails. They all get them.”

Honigsberg said most of the spotters have been with him the 18 years he’s been emergency manager for the county.

Training is done in two-hour courses and six to eight hours of activation, usually spread over four or five storms. But Honigsberg said the training is all business.

“It isn’t sitting back and cutting up. It’s serious stuff,” he said. “We go over stuff, they ask questions. Even what I call the veterans ask questions because no two storms are alike.”

He said he is working on an advanced training class to give spotters more insight into storm structure, some radar interpretation and updates on the latest advanced technology.

Waukomis Fire Chief Clarence Maly said his department used to storm spot even before Honigsberg was named emergency management director.

He said the training is important to all members of his department.

“It’s very informative, and especially for the new people,” he said. “For some of the older guys that have been around forever, we can help teach the new guys.”

Maly said when he and his spotters are activated during storms, they typically set up in one of three areas.

“We’ve got a hill west of Waukomis we sit on so we can see the whole valley,” he said. Another truck is sent to a hill south of Bison and the third is set up west of Waukomis. Each truck has a two-man team of spotters.

“Our deal is lives and property,” Maly said. “We get to watching storms, or if we get a tornado, and there are any injuries or property damaged, we get it taken care of.”

He said the network does a good job of getting information about storms where it needs to be.

“It’s a pretty good network,” Maly said. “With Mike’s group, the sheriff’s office and everyone working together now, it’s working really well.”

Drummond Fire Chief Jeremy Messall said he’s been a storm spotter for about a decade, ever since he joined the department.

He said the storm spotter training was “great” because it offers the mechanics of what’s behind a storm.

“We make our guys do refresher courses every year for updates and just to keep it fresh in their head,” he said. “Being in Drummond, we’re the southwest-most department in the county, so we usually catch it coming in first.”

He said the department deploys teams south on Oklahoma 132, the Bison blacktop and another toward Ames. The training the spotters received and the network itself are very important, Messall said.

“We’re the eyes for the town, we’re the eyes for Enid to let them know what’s coming into the county,” he said. “Every department does their job, no doubt.”

Fairmont Fire Chief Joel Eggers said his department has been part of the storm-spotting network ever since Honigsberg became emergency management director.

“I think it’s necessary training,” Eggers said. “I think we need to have that training so we know what we’re actually looking at and dealing with out there.”

He said having trained spotters in the department helps ensure information given to the public is accurate.

“All spotters have that training,” he said. “It makes us more reliable than just a citizen on the street.”

He said his department usually deploys about four miles south of Fairmont to the southwest or at 66th and Southgate, depending “upon the direction of the storm and where it’s heading.”

“We’re in contact with Mike and he’s letting us know where it’s coming from and what it’s going to do,” he said. We kind of gear our locations from his input.”

He said the members of his department are spotters only — not storm chasers.

“We’ve been able to keep a fairly good distance from the storms because we don’t chase,” Eggers said. “We are truly spotters. We stay in our location and move accordingly to avoid being caught in any storms.”

He said his spotters are trying to protect people with accurate information.

“We’re trying to help our communities be warned, and a lot of times, the TV stations are not the best source of information for our area,” he said. “We tell people to listen to our local radio stations and be aware of what’s going on.”

Honigsberg said the spotters all are involved in emergency services, making it easier for them to communicate.

“The key thing about our people in the field is they are all emergency services personnel in some shape or form,” he said. “They’re rural fire, sheriff’s office, Enid Police Department.”

He said their first priority is to their respective jurisdictions, and their second priority is if something is damaged by severe weather, they can act as emergency responders.

“In my opinion, we have the best network of storm spotters in the state,” Honigsberg said. “We are where we are today because we all work together. After a major activation, we get together after a week or so, sometimes it’s that night, and we go over what went right and what went wrong.

“And if something went wrong, how can we fix it? How can we become more efficient? And that’s why we have the caliber of people we have. We encourage each other. If someone makes a bad decision, we explain why not to do that, and we move forward because everybody makes mistakes,” he said.