Written in June 2005 by Rex Free (KN4CI)
In 1989, NO off the shelf amateur radio equipment existed to link repeaters together and there were no computer type repeater controllers (except for the very expensive ACC brand controllers in a few large cities that still could not link repeaters). During this time, Harlie Henson-amateur radio call sign KB4CRG in Huntsville, envisioned a link across north Alabama all the way to Memphis, Tennessee. He wanted a link where anyone in north Alabama could talk to each other. He talked with John Hain-N4AZY, an engineer at TV station WAAY-TV in Huntsville and an amateur radio operator. John liked the idea and begins designing a circuit that would do just that….. Link repeaters together across the state. John produced a schematic diagram to Harlie and Harlie then spent about 15 hours “hand building” and “hard wiring” a circuit board to produce the first link board.
With the help of Ron Mott-W4RDM, who lived in Huntsville at the time, promoted the link system to all area hams, telling them of an upcoming link system across north Alabama. Harlie contacted the Jackson County Amateur Radio Club about linking their repeater into Huntsville. They agreed and were anxious to become a repeater on the linked system. Harlie also contacted Ed Weatherford-N4GKE (now KS4B), President of the Bankhead Amateur Radio Club in Moulton, along with myself-N4WBT (Now KN4CI), Secretary of the club about linking to us. We were excited as well. Harlie then proceeded to spend another 50-70 hours HAND building (hard wiring) the link boards using John Hain’s schematic diagram and design. Equipment was collected for a total of 4 repeater sites to link together. John Hain’s repeater-147.140 on the Channel 31 TV transmitter tower in Huntsville, Harlie’s own 147.240 repeater south of Huntsville in Morgan County, the 147.360 repeater that was on a water tank in Scottsboro, and the 146.960 repeater 4 miles southwest of Moulton in Bankhead National Forest. As luck would have it (and Harlie and John’s planning), all of the repeaters were just about on a straight line with each other from west to east. This made it perfect for the two outside repeaters (Scottsboro and Moulton) to use beam antennas and the two repeaters in the middle would use omni antennas The repeaters would use a simplex 440 frequency to communicate to each other. The beauty of the system (and still is today) was that with these links in place, an amateur radio operator with a handie-talkie on low power in Jackson county, could talk to another ham radio operator on the west side of north Alabama in Lauderdale county using low power as well. The idea of hams talking so many miles on low power HT’s was exciting!! After testing was complete, all 4 repeaters were up and running. Ron Mott-W4RDM named the link system “the LALF System (Local Area Link Frequency System). Ron was instrumental in talking this up with hams…. Ron, a man like Harlie were about the only hams in the area who were linking equipment together, most of the time by hard wiring and coming up with methods. Many of you may remember Ron. He was the ONLY ham that had remote base stations-10 meters, 6 meters, 2 meters, even an HF station that were linked into his 440 repeater in Madison county. Birmingham Amateur Radio Club’s repeater was the only other system that had as much remote base equipment as Ron. Ron had a wonderful system that was exciting to listen to and play with. Today, we are so used to linking, it’s hard to imagine having to hard wire EVERYTHING and come up with circuitry to accomplish these tasks. Remember, hard wiring means just that. There are no circuit board traces going to the components. You had to solder wires between each part of the components! I still have one of Harlie’s original boards. I will bet it weighs 3 pounds just from the weight of the wires!
The LALF system remained in place for about a year, being used from time to time. Because of the design of the system, it was soon realized that the link system could not be expanded to go into Memphis.
Around the time of it’s beginning, Ed Weatherford-N4GKE (now KS4B) of Moulton, myself-Rex-N4WBT (now KN4CI), Harlie-KB4CRG, and Kevin Grosse-N4XXX from Scottsboro, talked about using this system for severe weather. This all happened after the valley had just experienced the 1989 tornado of Huntsville. The ideal of ANY ham radio operator (not just at an Emergency Management Operations Center) in Marshall county or Colbert county being able to talk to someone at the weather service office using low power and relay reports real time sounded fantastic! At that time, there was basically only ONE repeater frequency for the entire north Alabama area. Many of the EMA’s (Emergency Management Agencies) had tall towers, a beam antenna, and 50-watt radios to talk to the 146.940 2-meter amateur radio repeater in Huntsville. Many did not have any of this equipment. The normal protocol back then was Madison county EMA would be asked to activate a weather net (not called SKYWARN at the time) by the National Weather Service office out at the Huntsville-Madison county airport. 1 or 2 hams from the Madison county EMA would go out to the weather service office and man a station, using the 146.940 repeater. EMA’s from around the north Alabama area, if they could hit the repeater, would relay reports. As you can imagine, because of the nature of the distance, EMA’s in Franklin County, Colbert, and Lauderdale, had a tough time or no chance of getting into the repeater. Some EMA’s could not afford equipment needed to reach the repeater on a reliable basis. Phones were the main mode of use in those counties.
Kevin Grosse-N4XXX of Scottsboro is a man that needs to be talked about. Now some 16 years later, I can more openly tell his story for the history books so that everyone knows how important this guy was to North Alabama SKYWARN and it’s success. This is a dark side of the NAS story but needs to be heard.
Kevin participated heavily in hang gliding in the northeast Alabama area. He loved the sport, and found out he could use amateur radio to communicate to ground crews. He got his license; found he loved the hobby of amateur radio, and soon after heard about this new link system in 1990. He too was “sparked” by the ideal of ANY ham, ANYWHERE in north Alabama being able to talk directly to the National Weather Service office from ANYWHERE in north Alabama. Kevin became very passionate about the ideal. He did research and found that the ARRL (American Radio Relay League) had signed a memorandum of understanding several years ago with the National Weather Service Headquarters Office (who are responsible for all of the NWS offices in the country). The memorandum basically said that any ham through the ARRL emergency radio service could help the National Weather Service in the spotting and tracking of severe weather through the NWS SKYWARN program. Kevin was a passionate guy at the time, and pursued this with full steam. He saw a need for this, particularly for counties on the fringe… Marshall, Dekalb, and Jackson. He approached the NWS director in Huntsville about the memorandum of understanding with the ARRL, and proposed the new link system to him. Politics can root deeply in anything we do in life, and it certainly rooted deep into amateur radio in this respect. The NWS director, reluctantly (for fear of the political fallout of what was already in place) signed the agreement. The director told me in later years “Hell Rex, I had no choice but to sign it, but I knew what would happen when I did sign it, and it wasn’t going to be good in lieu of the politics”. 1990 was a stormy year, both with weather and with politics! “Political forces” told us that we would not be allowed to come to the NWS office and operate a station there. Kevin, again, passionate at this, wanted to have the net even though we could not go to the Weather Service Office. Ed Weatherford and myself, with Harlie’s and Kevin’s input, wrote the first Standard Operating Procedures and the Emergency Net Preambles. We all decided that a Thursday night net needed to be incorporated as well. Harlie thought this might be a good time to test all of the link equipment, get ALL amateur radio operators involved in severe weather spotting, as well as promote friendship in amateur radio and enjoy connecting to hams all across north Alabama. Since Ed, Kevin, and myself were heavily involved in supporting our county EMA’s, we decided to use the counties involved in the 13 county mutual aid in North Alabama. The 13 county mutual aid involves 13 Emergency Management Agencies in north Alabama that pool their resources, communicate and help each other. Since the Weather Service office covered these counties as well, it was only logical that these be the counties included into the North Alabama SKYWARN. And so it came to be.
After some time of strong negative politics against us, we finally were allowed to come to the weather service office. The 13 county EMA’s worked the politics on this. Some of them saw the great potential it had to help their own counties out in severe weather. Many of those counties, except for phones, amateur radio were the ONLY paths they had to talk to the National Weather Service. Their state owned UHF radio repeater system was in very poor condition, and did not work half the time. Amateur Radio was their PRIMARY mode of communication next to telephones.
The system worked so good and the National Weather Service was so overwhelmed with it’s potential, the politics of the old system in place seemed to slowly fade away as far as our presence at the National Weather Service office. We were sending hams to the NWS office every time a Severe Thunderstorm Watch or Tornado Watch was issued. The old system in place only activated for Tornado Watches.
During this time, Randy Galloway-KN4QS who lived in Limestone County and worked on Redstone Arsenal started going to the National Weather Service office EVERY TIME NAS activated. Randy, who was passionate about weather, loved every second of this. He was like the dedicated fire fighter and could be compared to that. The firefighter loves what he does and when he is going to a fire call, replies “It’s a good one, I mean, it’s a bad one!…. Randy could “smell severe weather in the air” and would comment on his way into work many days…”This is going to be a bad day guys”…….. The thing is, Randy was right most all of the time!!….. And so he commanded great respect from fellow amateur radio operators during those years. Randy, who was a civil service worker with NASA, actually had a higher pay grade than the director of the NWS office at the airport. He developed a good relationship with them that lasted for many, many years. The director laughed and told me in later years they would jokingly reply when Randy showed up to man the amateur radio station…”Randy’s here, he’s in charge now!” (By his pay grade and scale being more than the NWS directors).
On the negative side of things, during these beginning years, things were NOT so good for Kevin Grosse-N4XXX mentioned earlier. Kevin, because of his effort to bring SKYWARN and the linked system into being, was threatened numerous times by hams, teased, mocked, called a trouble maker, and many other words that cannot be written here for his effort at disrupting what was in place and what had been in place for years. To some of the older ones involved in the older system, Kevin’s name was and still is DIRT. Bitterness still is in some of the older hams that participated in the weather spotting prior to North Alabama SKYWARN. They saw it then as today as a hostile “take over”. Kevin’s passionate effort to make this happen and working the politics to make it happen ultimately cost him his enjoyment and any interest in the amateur radio hobby. He becomes so frustrated with the constant harassment (especially at ham fests) that he quit amateur radio all together around 1992 and has not returned to the hobby even today. I will never forget the harassment he caught. Many of us stood clear of the politics and waited for Kevin to make it work. He did all the dirty work! He did make it happen, but we lost him as an amateur radio operator as a result. Some others and I have always felt bad about that even to this day.
The net could not have functioned any better in those beginning years. A person could sit at home, listen on ham radio or a police scanner (which many citizens did) and track every severe weather event in real time across the North Alabama area, even severe thunderstorms with NO big tornado threats (we activated for a severe thunderstorm watch or a tornado watch). The NWS staff at the airport had not ever seen anything so good in all of their careers. For a NWS staff member to sit at a radar screen and call out areas they need reports from (while sitting beside an amateur radio operator), and receive those reports back direct from the spotter while listening real time via amateur radio…well, it hasn’t been matched even today! Emergency Management Agencies used this net for real time reports and direct real time communication to the weather service. TV stations were listening to every word said on the net, and in many times, relaying it on the air to viewers. It was at times comical to hear the report given on the amateur radio frequency of NAS, and then 2 seconds later hear the exact message repeated on a television station’s channel to the public by their weatherman. All TV station weathermen listened to every word said on NAS, and they still do! Ernie Blair-WA4BPS recalls one time calling the net and getting so frustrated to hear the information on a television located near him repeating every word he said during a net. At one point, Ernie called out some information on the NAS amateur radio net about some severe weather, heard it repeated wrongly on the television behind him by a TV weatherman (who was listening to the NAS amateur radio frequency Ernie was on), and Ernie found himself correcting the weatherman while still talking on the amateur radio frequency! Those were fun times to be a part of. There were lots more funny things that occurred, but time will not allow me to share them all with you.
One of the shinning lights in these good times was Randy Galloway-KN4QS. Randy was a passionate weather buff, amateur radio operator, and a good citizen. Randy had a tone on the radio that commanded respect whenever he was part of net control. He had that authoritative tone that many could come close, but not match. One of Randy’s famous on the air comments that many remember sort of explains how only Randy could command and control a net so well. A (bless his heart-southern translation for idiot!) out of touch amateur radio operator (just anxiously wanting to help) came on during a severe weather net with Ed Weatherford-N4GKE running the net, and Randy out at the weather service office. The excited amateur radio operator thought they would help out and volunteered to the net control operator “there is light rain here in the parking lot at such and such manufacturing in Huntsville.” Randy replied back with his very low commanding and authoritative voice “we got a million dollar radar here”, we see it!….. No reply back and the frequency went quiet…. I thought I would fall out of my chair laughing that day. ONLY Randy could do that! Randy was as faithful as the sun coming up in those early years. If there was a tornado watch or a severe thunderstorm watch, Randy was there. If he could not make it, Ernie Blair-WA4BPS or Bob Hudson-W4RKH would fill his shoes and their work was exceptional as well as helping with net control. They tag teamed with Randy on many occasions and shifts of 20 hours were not out of the question during long severe weather events. If you had any of these guys at the weather service, you were in good hands! Many have complimented Ed Weatherford-N4GKE (now KS4B) in those early years as primary net control. His calmness and control together with Randy Galloway made an awesome team of net control.
Other amateur radio operators who were instrumental during those early years and who spent hundreds of volunteer hours. I have to take the time and mention them. We owe the success of North Alabama/Southern Middle Tennessee Skywarn to them!
Those who made SKYWARN work in the early years in addition to those mentioned above so far. Some of these are still very active today. I know I have left some out and if I did, I apologize!
Sonny Blankenship – N4JDB of Lawrence County
Roger Olinger – KS4FT of Jackson County
Tom Wright – W4TFW (ex. KD4COP) of Morgan County
Ed Ringer – W4DGH of Dekalb County
Max Williams – KS4QF of Lauderdale County
Billy Ray Tompkins – KK4GT of Colbert County
Billy Hugh Hamilton – KC4TLG of Franklin County
Jim Fletcher – W4BBW of Dekalb County
Tim Bauer – KE4RYS of Limestone County
Chris Gibbs – AB4KK of Limestone County
Johnny Barnett – KD4NIH of Morgan County
Ricky Kimbrell – KC4RNF, ARRL AL. Emergency Section Mgr.
Elvis Vest – WA4AGM of Winston County
Tom Grubbs – N4QYN of Winston County
SUCCESS OF NAS SPINS OFF NADEC – 1994
The success of NAS prompted several to form the North Alabama Digital Emergency Communications group or NADEC around 1994. The purpose was to use Packet communications to all the Emergency Management Agencies. This system would supplement the NAS by relaying damage reports and keeping damage reports off of he voice NAS system. The system would use several dedicated nodes up around the area. It stayed in place until around 1999 when packet seemed to die in activity. This system later evolved into what we have today, APRS packet data amateur radio weather stations that are on the air and available on the Internet today. Although it’s original purpose died, NADEC’s system served to mold into another public service contribution that was started in 2003-Amateur Radio Weather Stations available on the Internet and their data available around the world. Go to Google search engine and type in “Ham Weather Stations” and you will see what I mean. The first hit yields a web site full of packet weather stations ran by many amateur radio operators in North Alabama! Today, amateur radio operators passionate about weather have evolved old NADEC technology (a few still use the original NADEC equipment) into this system. It works great and provides a powerful public service of current weather conditions in North Alabama.
AMATEUR TELEVISION (ATV) SENDS RADAR PICTURES OUT TO EMA’S IN NORTH ALABAMA
Dick Curtis-KK4HF (Now W1TV) of Huntsville seized the moment of NAS popularity and heightened weather interest since the Huntsville tornado of 1989. He generated money and went to area Emergency Management agencies installing Amateur TV receivers. The purpose was to transmit live NWS radar from the airport to all EMA’s at no cost. The system remained in place until the Doppler systems came into being. It was again, a tremendous public service through amateur radio. It proved that other forms of amateur radio could be used to serve the public other than VHF radio.
IF IT IS A GREAT SYSTEM AND WORKS-THEN LET’S CHANGE IT! Late 1993- 1994
Early 1994 seemed to be the year of the atomic bomb dropped on NAS, the EMA’s, the NWS offices, and the whole North Alabama area. Due to severe budget cutbacks and restructuring within NOAA, the National Weather Service office in Huntsville was told it will be closing and the Birmingham office will be taking over warning responsibility for all of North Alabama. Many of us involved in EMA’s, amateur radio, or the NWS Huntsville office will never forget that sinking feeling. We all thought, we have a great thing, why does the government want to change it? Having worked as a contractor for the government since 1984, I knew this was typical. Give the government time and it will blow a great thing when budgets get tight. Next question, what the heck are we going to do to keep this going? Is NAS DEAD?
Brian Peters/David Black/ALERT to the Rescue!
In 1993, Brian Peters-WD4EPR, a meteorologist employed at the Birmingham NWS office was assigned the position of Warning Coordination meteorologist. Little did he realize what a tremendous task laid ahead of him in 1994! When Brian heard about the news that they were taking over North Alabama area, he preceded full steam ahead with trying to make the transition a smooth one. He drove up and met the EMA (Emergency Management Agency) directors and talked with them. Needless to say, he sort of received a cold welcome. After all, the EMA’s were not happy with this whole mess of the Huntsville office shutting down. Brian scheduled his first storm spotter class with the Lawrence County Emergency Management Agency. We at NAS used this opportunity to make plans for the continuation of a good thing we had all worked so hard to make happen over the years. From Huntsville westward across the state, hams teamed together to get the word out about Birmingham sponsoring a SKYWARN class in Lawrence county. This would be the first spotter class under the Birmingham office. We distributed flyers all over North Alabama as much as a month ahead of time. We broadcast it weekly on the Thursday night SKYWARN training net. Brian arrived for the class in Lawrence County at the Church of Christ building in Moulton (across the street from the EOC-Emergency Operations Center) to find a 130 plus crowd of eager storm spotters! Brian, now retired commented later that out of ALL of his SKYWARN classes held in the state, no one has topped the 130 plus record attendance in Moulton that fall day!
Brian gave a great class that day. After the class, several of us approached Brian and poured our hearts out on what we had done so far, where we wanted to go, the politics of the past, and what we wanted to keep in place with NAS. Brian could have easily said, well, that’s great but here is what we are going to do (with his own plans). Instead, he listened, he understands and he said, “that’s great! We don’t need to mess up anything that works! What do need to do to relay this net down to Birmingham?”.
Wow, he could not have said anything better. We immediately begin working with Harlie to devise a plan to get the net into Birmingham. Brian later introduced us to a guy who like Brian Peters, became and remains one of my best friends-David Black-KB4KCH. David, along with some more wonderful guys from the Birmingham area, saw the tremendous load put on the Birmingham office for this transition and wanted to pitch in and help with amateur radio. Brian arranged a middle of the road meeting point (Cullman Shoney’s restaurant) and thus began the first of many, many more meetings on Saturday mornings. Things were not all rosy. On the political side of things, the EMA’s and politicians quietly resisted us working so eagerly with the Birmingham NWS office. Many political figures wanted this to fail miserably to prove a point. They WANTED it to fall flat on its face so they could say…there, we told you it would not work!!! Despite the overall tone of this, we preceded on to make it work.
Eva Relay Site to Birmingham for NAS Started
With almost weekly meetings continuing in Cullman at the Shoney’s restaurant: Ricky Kimbrell-KC4RNF-Alabama ARRL (American Radio Relay League) Emergency Section Manager, The Birmingham crew: Brian Peters, David Black, Ron Arant-N4PHP, Jim Smiley-KE4CAP, and Mark Parmley-WA4UH, The NAS crew: Harlie Henson, Ed Weatherford, Sonny Blankenship- (Now N4JDB), and myself, worked out details of how we could tie NAS into Birmingham. At the same time of these meetings, the Birmingham guys had also got busy and formed ALERT (Alabama Emergency Response Team). This organization has always had its act together since it’s beginning. It is an organization that was formed to help the National Weather Service with communications via amateur radio. It still thrives today and serves a very useful purpose for the NWS Birmingham office.
Terry Truett-KR4RD from Birmingham (also one of the founding members of ALERT) offered his repeater to help link NAS into Birmingham. Harlie Henson and he worked out a plan. The plan would call for a relay site to be located at a small sleepy community called Eva in southern Morgan County. The equipment would be located at a gospel FM radio station WRJL-99.9. Permission had been granted to Harlie for use of the tower and storage of equipment inside. They only asked for money for the power bill on the equipment and a letter from the National Weather Service in Birmingham to put in their FCC folder (to show they were providing public service if checked by the FCC on license renewal). The Eva site would hear the 440 UHF frequency shared by all repeaters in NAS and would then retransmit it on the input frequency of Terry Truett’s repeater on Red Mountain in Birmingham. The ALERT guys would then simply monitor Terry’s repeater to talk back into NAS.
By this time, the 147.140 repeater owned by John Hain’s on the WAAY-TV tower was off line working with the links and would not return to be a part of the LALF system. So at the time of the Eva link, there were only 3 repeaters to link on NAS. As luck would have it, the Eva site is almost exactly in the middle of the state between Moulton and Scottsboro. As a result, the Eva site could hear all 3 repeaters and then relay them into Terry’s 440 repeater in Birmingham with absolutely no problem.
Who is going to pay for all of this??
Well, whom do you think?…Amateur radio operators of course! A plea was put out for equipment and/or money to support this effort. Money was collected at the Huntsville Hamfest and funds were also provided by the Huntsville Hamfest Committee towards this effort. Ernie Blair-WA4BPS of Huntsville was relentless trying to find the equipment and funds to make the Eva link happen. He was a big factor in getting financial support and equipment as well as working the politics. Most of the equipment came from Harlie, but radios and money for link controllers were provided by hams in Colbert and Lauderdale County along with an antenna provided by the NWS office in Birmingham. Ron Arant-N4PHP of the ALERT organization provided most of the feed line needed. The Birmingham Amateur Radio Club offered support as well.
The only thing left was the power bill to pay the radio station ($10 per month). We would collect donations at Ham Fests. Many times it was not enough. There was no additional money for any new equipment. It was tough trying to keep the link in place at times. The Decatur Amateur Radio Club, The Bankhead Amateur Radio Club, and other individuals chipped in through the years paying the power bill to the Eva radio station. Looking back, the only thing that hurt me the most was that for the most part, ALERT and Birmingham made the most effort to make this link work than did our own hams up here in North Alabama. I think in many ways it goes back to politics. Many up here wanted the Birmingham office to fail miserably at this, thus in their minds opening back up the chances for a Huntsville office. The Eva link remained in place until 2004.
NAS/ALERT Operate as a Team-1994-2002
From 1994 until December of 2002, NAS and ALERT together as a team. ALERT actually worked with other SKYWARN amateur radio groups around the state since Birmingham was responsible for 68 counties! Throughout all of this time, Brian Peters-WD4EPR was their helping, listening, providing support, providing training, and doing whatever it took to keep this going. Looking back, Birmingham was put under an extremely powerful magnifying glass by North Alabama, both by its citizens and it’s politicians. If the NWS office in Birmingham didn’t predict the slightest weather event, then politicians and EMA officials raked them over the coals! As far as amateur radio is concerned, some of the best spotter training we had ever had came from Brian Peters. The old Huntsville NWS office at the airport had little to no budget for storm spotter classes. Their classes were very weak in comparison to the Birmingham office. They were great people, they just did not have any resources or the time to teach good spotter training. They relied heavily on the EMA’s to do this. Brian provided many of us with his personal cell phone number, ask us to call him any time we needed him, and we did, and he responded every single time. Birmingham NWS did the best it could with what it had been tasked to do. I think they will never be given proper credit for that from North Alabama. As far as the Eva Link, amateur radio and severe weather, it was something that all amateur radio operators involved in can proudly say……we did it, we supported the Weather Service and we made it work despite all the negative politics. I had the honors of running net control one November 2002 severe weather evening, the last weather net to work with ALERT since the new Huntsville office took over responsibility January 14, 2003. It was a mixed blessing on my part. We had worked so hard, bonded so many friendships to make this work, but it was all changing, again! On the other hand, a Huntsville office brought new hope for NAS towards the future.
Looking back, the only negative thing I can say about Birmingham is this: because of the tremendous task set before them and the amount of counties they had to warn, they could not ever give us the “personal touch” that the early years did during a severe weather event with the Huntsville office. A report would be passed to Birmingham and acknowledged, and that was it! In the old days, there was a constant feedback from your input, such as for an example: Spotter in the field or Net Control Operator to the NWS office: “I have got a funnel cloud at such and such road near such and such town”. There was an immediate come back from the amateur radio operator at the weather service office….”We see what you are talking about, it should head just to your north…we are about to place your county under a warning…. stand by…There should be some large hail in front of this so be careful…. Standby while they type up the warning”. So the amateur radio operator who relayed that report felt a vital part of what information he had given. It gave him a “sense of worth” for his effort, a “sense of pride” in using amateur radio for public service not to mention the information given out to all listening. An EMA director listening knew immediately, they are about to put my county under a warning. When Birmingham took over, that was gone forever. Your information was received with “OK, we copy”…….. Period…that’s it…that’s the only feedback you ever got and that’s all you ever heard. Again, I do not fault Birmingham NWS or ALERT, we were just spoiled with our system that worked like a clock in previous years.
NAS Net Evolves and County Participation Changes-1989-2002
In the early years, participation from counties went from heavy to light, depending on what county. Marshall, Cullman, and Jackson counties had little to no participation in the early years. Over the years, that would change. We used to laugh in the early days, since some of the counties may have only had one or two amateur radio operators helping with SKYWARN, then it gave the appearance on a training net sometimes that a county might only have one ham in that county because they might be the only ham to check in from that county! In Lawrence County, where I am from, we laughed all the time because if we were calling the NAS net, there was going to be NO local Lawrence County weather net since we were not available to run a weather net in our county! We teased Roger Olinger-KS4FT, telling him he was “Mr. Jackson County” since he is ALL we ever heard out of Jackson County or Billy Hugh Hamilton-KC4TLG in Franklin County. Billy was the ONLY voice ever heard out of Franklin County for several years. Thankfully over time that has all changed.
Billy Hugh Hamilton- always checked in relaying severe weather with an excited raised voice that always commanded attention during severe weather events. No one will ever forget his excited voice yelling “KC4TLG to net control!” You knew it was going to be a “big one” when Billy checked in with that excited tone of voice.
Several things were done over the years to add life to the Thursday night training nets. Amateur Radio operators in their own counties started pushing for more local weather nets within their counties to relay reports into NAS. This was wonderful. We watched local counties grow in participation with SKYWARN, thus helping out their own counties more in times of severe weather. We offered a swap shop segment on NAS where amateur radio equipment was posted for sale. It was a great success. It brought hams that previously were not interested in storm spotting, to participate in NAS. We had Brian Peters speak on the training net one Thursday night and several other events to keep the training net interesting. One year, we held a severe weather class at Delphi Saginaw’s facility in Decatur. We invited Jerral Miller, a retired meteorologist (who now is working for an FM radio station doing weather) we worked with in the early days of NAS while at the Huntsville airport, Dan Satterfield: a TV weatherman from Channel WHNT-TV station in Huntsville, and several others to speak on severe weather. It was a great success, although many were ill at Dan Satterfield showing up an hour and half late! That went over real well. We also sponsored a SKYWARN forum every year at the Huntsville Hamfest.
All of these factors led to continued growth in NAS…
2001-A New NWS Huntsville Office Is Coming
The announcement caught most everyone off guard. What, we were told for years the government doesn’t have money for this? What is going on! The announcement that a NEW FULLY STAFFED WEATHER SERVICE OFFICE was going to be build here was taken in a “daze” is the best way I can describe it. Most of us could not believe it. Many in the amateur radio community waited for several months to see if it REALLY was going to happen. In the spring of 2002, Ernie Blair-WA4BPS, a long time NAS participate contacted me and said: “Lets get things rolling like they used to be. Why don’t we start meeting and planning this upcoming change to make sure it is done right”. In mid summer of 2002, Ernie, Scott Worsham-W4SSW-an amateur radio operator and staff member at the Madison County EMA, Chris Reed-KF4MMF-an amateur radio operator and staff member at the Madison County EMA, Doug Childs-K4DIG a new comer to NAS that came fired up and ready to work, and myself all met at the Huntsville/Madison County 911 building for some 4-6 weeks every Thursday night. We drew up new Standard Operating Procedures, New Emergency Training Net, and New Emergency Net Preamble. Doug Childs applied his talents and also posted a very nice NAS web site that remains up still today. All of us produced a Power Point Slide Presentation about NAS and then later produced a NAS Net Control PowerPoint Presentation Class. We ironed out details that needed to be addressed with the change coming. We decided to keep the Eva link up as long as we could after the transition to Huntsville. So the path was paved and ready for a new start in NAS.
Huntsville NWS Office And The Future of NAS
With the new office in place now in Huntsville, NAS looks forward to many good years ahead helping out the National Weather Service office. Tim Troutman, the first warning coordination meteorologist with the office, hit the road full steam giving in depth spotter classes and helping in coordinating with EMA’s and NAS. His efforts with the amateur radio community will once again show what we as amateur radio operators can do for our communities and the National Weather Service office in the spotting and tracking of severe weather. New amateur radio operators getting into NAS have also come forward and instituted new procedures and improvements. This tells me that NAS will continue to grow. The biggest pride that I carry through all of the years with NAS is the fact that ALL of this is through volunteer effort. No person ever got paid a dime for all of these years of service to the communities of North Alabama. So many amateur radio operators have donated thousands of hours away from their families helping with Skywarn and the NAS system. Many of these will never receive a thank you for any of the times they were out in the severe weather or at an Emergency Management agency away from their families volunteering their time for public service through amateur radio. I have strong friendships with amateur radio operators all over North Alabama and the Birmingham area as a result of NAS. Many of my closest friends came from participation in NAS over the years. Even though many are not participating any more in NAS or amateur radio, we still all have a deep friendship for each other through past participation in NAS.
I feel confident that when the call comes from the NWS for continued help, amateur radio operators and NAS will continue to be there. All of those involved in the early foundation of NAS will always carry a pride of accomplishment with us. Would we do it all over again to get where we are today? You bet!
If you are reading this article and have not ever participated in the NWS SKYWARN program or North Alabama SKYWARN through amateur radio, then I encourage you to get involved in this very worthwhile activity of helping your community through the National Weather Service. I guarantee you that you will not regret it!
Thanks to Harlie Henson, David Black, Doug Childs, Brian Peters, Greg Sarrot, and Paul Meyer for their input and help on this article.