Outside his work hours, a Defense Logistics Agency employee at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, pursues an activity shared by few.
It brings him outdoors, but it’s not hiking. It involves wind, but it’s not flying. There’s a lot of water — but it’s not boating. It has him tracking and following unpredictable entities in nature — but it’s not hunting.
John Fertsch, a customer relations specialist in DLA Information Operations, is what the public knows as a storm chaser. Yet this activity isn’t about seeking thrills but volunteering time and knowledge that — especially with hurricane season in full swing — can help save lives.
Fertsch is an active storm spotter with Skywarn, the National Weather Service’s group of volunteers who go out in the storms and report weather observations in real time. Fertsch also reports his observations to the local emergency operations center to help them take precautions in the event they deploy resources during bad weather. At this time of year, he also reports his observations to the National Hurricane Center.
His interest in weather led him to study meteorology on his own. A licensed “ham” radio operator, Fertsch has the advantage to be able to receive and share information during times when disasters take out our common forms of communication or they become too overloaded to get a message across. These skills help immensely during storms, when communications fail most often, and can be essential during relief efforts.
When going out in severe weather, Fertsch is prepared with strobe lights, communications gear, a laptop for radar and first-aid kits. As a mobile spotter, he monitors radar for features and patterns and then goes to the areas where the severe weather may strike.
“There definitely is an adrenaline rush when you’re on the edge of insane weather. It’s not for everyone to go mobile out into the elements,” said Fertsch.
Fertsch explains the process as similar to the movie Twister. When there’s a known severe weather event, Skywarn is activated. The group has a net controller who advises where to go to intercept it, and mobile spotters head to the area. He reports his observations to the net controller who then relays the information to the National Weather Service.
He’s had many opportunities to help in hurricanes, tornadoes and just nasty weather in general. Fertsch recalled an occasion when a group of Boy Scouts picked up his conversation with another mobile spotter about a possible tornado in their area. The Scout leader moved the boys to a secure building just before the storm was given an active tornado warning.
During the hurricane season, he doesn’t always need to be in the path of a hurricane to assist. “We have a lot of strange atmospheric conditions that affect how we transmit and receive our signals,” he said. “I might be able to hear a station that the National Hurricane Center cannot hear, so I will relay that station’s traffic to the NHC so they can get the report and adjust advisories and warnings as needed.”
Most recently, Fertsch assisted with Tropical Storm Gordon and Hurricane Florence. “During the actual hurricane, not too much was heard,” Fertsch said. “There were a few stations from the Carolinas that reported their conditions afterwards. Power was out and flooding all around them.”
He continues to monitor known frequencies for distress calls and to help pass information to those who need it.