Base benefits from Maxwell Weather Station

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- The Maxwell Weather Station's manager said personnel at the station help keep the base safe in times of troubled weather conditions.

David Scott said their most important jobs at the station are resource protection and issuing warnings for severe weather and tornados, but they also brief pilots and monitor weather observation systems.

"March is the beginning of the severe weather season, but for the last two years, severe weather has started coming to our area in February," he said. "Last year, we had the tornado in Prattville, Ala., and the year before that was the Enterprise, Ala., tornado. Both occurred in February, and we might want to start including February in the severe weather season."

Mr. Scott said the station's contracted staff works weekdays from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. and on weekends from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. He said the weather hub at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., works in collaboration with Maxwell-Gunter during the time staff members are not at the station, but there is always an "on-call" person available at Maxwell for severe weather conditions.

"That way, we always have two sets of eyes on the weather," he said. "I came here in 2004, and since I've been here, I can't remember having missed any severe weather incidents. However, we do tend to err on side of caution, especially when it comes to tornados."

Mr. Scott said the 42nd Communications Flight maintains a Next-Generation, or NEXRAD, radar facility in Tallapoosa County, northeast of Maxwell, and he describes that station as "an essential tool" in predicting trouble at Maxwell-Gunter.

"We have a feed from the NEXRAD here at the office and focus on both bases," he said. "If bad weather conditions are within five miles of either Maxwell or Gunter, and warrant a warning, a warning is issued. As we watch the radar and other monitoring equipment, we try to interpret the conditions and warn the base within two hours of severe weather and within a half an hour of a possible tornado strike. We differ from the National Weather Service in that they have to actually see severe conditions on the radar in an area before they can issue a warning for that area."

Mr. Scott said one reason for the extra caution concerning tornados is that they are smaller in this part of the country and can form quickly. That characteristic makes them harder to predict, so the Maxwell Weather Station is quick to issue a warning if conditions even suggest a possible tornado. He said the station looks more at wind velocity information than the reflective radar because to a trained eye it better reveals rotation in storms that could represent a funnel cloud or tornado.

"When we see a velocity of 70 knots (nautical miles-per-hour) of rotation in a system, or 70 knots of shear as we call it, that's when we look at it as a tornado," he said. "Also, because the NEXRAD can 'slice' a storm into layers, we consider it a tornado hazard anytime rotation is showing in several layers of a storm and confirm that suspicion with wind velocity data."

Mr. Scott said a key to the protection against severe weather the weather station provides Maxwell-Gunter is the way the station disseminated information to the base community. He said during times of bad weather, the Maxwell Command Post and the Installation Warning System both display warning boxes on base computers, and the Giant Voice messaging system also announces the danger. Sirens will sound during tornado activity, and all base computers will receive an e-mail advising of the conditions.

Mr. Scott added that sirens are only used to warn of tornados and not to warn of severe weather, and it may be difficult to distinguish between base sirens and Montgomery County sirens. County sirens sound whenever there is a danger anywhere in the county even if the danger is well away from the Montgomery area. He said if you have any doubts about a warning, do not hesitate to call the weather station's forecasting division at 953-2071.

"Also, there is the Maxwell Weather Station Web site at www.au.af.mil/msd/wx," he said. "The site allows you to see live monitoring sensors and has current weather conditions and current warnings listed. I also recommend weather warning radios because if you are not watching TV or listening to local radio, you might miss a warning without the warning radios."

On a last note for sirens, Mr. Scott said the "all-clear" is when the siren stops sounding. He said the base system will sound the siren as long as there is a danger of tornado activity in the five-mile radius of either Maxwell or Gunter.