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Severe weather in central Alabama is serious business. It is something that affects us all. With this in mind, began a new era in storm reporting by implementing a spotter chatroom. This is a great online method, for sending storm reports via instant messaging, especially where a spotter might not be close enough to a repeater. This service was set up by ALERT to allow trained weather savvy citizens of Alabama to help the National Weather Service (NWS) in it’s warning decision process. With trained individuals from across central Alabama providing reports in real-time, we can help the NWS warn downstream, as well as help to gather ground truth for days after an event. Please take time to review our how-to videos, as well as read the following guidelines.

Policy (version 24, October 2007)

These are the terms and conditions for use of the chat room (BMXSpotterChat). By using this project, you agree that:

  1. The National Weather Service (NWS) is by no means responsible for the services provided to the chat room nor are they mandated to participate with the project. All NWS participation is voluntary and should be be considered non-operational.
  2. This service will be maintained to the best of our abilities, but is not operationally supported 24/7. There are no guarantees that this service will be available during every severe weather event. This service is not meant to replace operational technologies like NOAA Weather Radio, Internet, NOAAport, or Weatherwire.
  3. Information provided by automated programs within the chat framework (example iembot) are not officially disseminated by the NWS. Their accuracy and timeliness is not guaranteed. Official information is provided at
  4. Access to this service is a privilege and not a right. ALERT reserves the right to grant and revoke access to this service.
    • Access will be granted to groups with operational meteorologists and a mission for public information dissemination. Other groups may be let in based on the discretion of the project leaders.
    • Access will be revoked to groups that abuse this service. Abusive behavior includes, but is not limited to malicious use of the chat service, inappropriate language directed at other participants, or any other action deemed outside of the spirit of this collaboration.
  5. All chatroom messages are logged and are in the public domain for dissemination.

Access Stewardship

Access to this chat room is not a decision made by the NWS. The final decision to allow access will be made by ALERT.

Currently, groups given access to this project are as follows.

  • National Weather Service Forecast Offices
  • Broadcast media groups with operational meteorologists.
  • Emergency Management
  • Skywarn Spotters


With many users in a chat room at once, it is important to keep the signal to noise ratio high. These guidelines are probably not as important when there isn’t severe weather. When we have active warnings, please consider the following suggestions for etiquette.

  1. Avoid any idle chit-chat
    Many folks are running the chat software on a separate PC, so they have to physically drop what they are doing to read your message.  Don’t type in the chat just to hear yourself talk.
  2. Don’t nowcast or ask storm particulars
    Avoid saying things like ‘that storm is impressive’ or that is ‘an impressive line’. Most importantly, refrain from asking “I live here…is that storm going to effect me in the next 2 hrs?”
  3. Don’t pop into rooms
    Please don’t just join a room quickly to read what is going on and then leave. There is an anonymously monitor option available, as well as the IEMBOT Web Monitor available.
    If you don’t plan on contributing to the room, don’t join it. This chat software supports your simultaneous presence in as many rooms as you like. So join and stay a while! 🙂
  4. Avoid private messaging the NWS
    The leaders of this room (ALERT) are in direct contact with the NWS.  Please use this room as a means for us to relay information to them.  There may be times when the NWS directly contacts you or submits a question to the room.  Please extend the highest courtesy to them by giving the most accurate report you can.  Also, only in the most extreme circumstances should you contact the NWS privately.
  5. Storm Reports
    This room is solely intended for the sharing of storm reports.  Please include the magnitude and time of any report you wish to share. If you don’t know those values, please state so. For example, a bad report is ‘hail reported in Northport’; a good report is ‘unknown size hail reported in Northport now’. Stating the time and magnitude avoids the leaders of this room from asking for this info, since it is needed for NWS storm reports. At no time should you type in the chat a misleading or bogus report. 
    The following is more information on Storm Reports.
  6. Avoid TV/Media Re-Reports
    Both the NWS and ALERT are in communication with the Local Media so we usually know about those reports before they are broadcast over the air.  The idea of this chat is to get new reports from spotters in the field to help facilitate the warning process.

Joining BMXSpotterChat (In General)

Pick a Jabber chat client.

There are many chat clients to choose from since there is no official client developed or supported by the Jabber Software Foundation. They have, however, compiled a nice list of clients, including a few that they suggest. We are recommending Pidgin as the perferred client on Windows or Linux Linux because:

  • Excellent community support and development
  • Support for multiple chat protocols such as AIM, MSN, Yahoo, and ICQ
  • Cross platform support
  • Simple interface, including tabbed chat windows

As for Mac OS X, take a look at either iChat AV or Adium, both of which offer similar features to Gaim.

Choose a Jabber server.

There are many Jabber servers out there. Once again, a nice list of servers have been compiled by the XMPP Federation. A few things to note as far as servers we recommend:

  • If you already have a Gmail (a.k.a. Google Mail) account, you already have a Jabber account (Google Talk runs on a Jabber-based server). If you would like to use this, you can skip to the next step.
  • Another reliable server we recommend is the server, although you may not be able to register a preferred username as it is also one of the most populated servers.

Don’t see anywhere to register a user? Don’t panic! Once you have picked out a server you would like to join, just go ahead and launch your Jabber client.

Add account to chat client.

Look for the button, menu item, etc. in the program that will let you add an account to your chat client. In Pidgin, a box should automatically pop up that contains a button to add an account, which you should click on. At this point, if you want to use a Gmail account to connect to Jabber, look at Google’s walkthroughs for configuring different clients. In the add account window, here are some standard fields you will see and might want to change:

  • Protocol: This is the type of server you’re going to connect to. Make sure XMPP is chosen.
  • Screen name/User name: This is the unique username you will use to connect to the server.
  • Server: This is where the name of the server you have chosen goes. For example,
  • Password: This is the password you choose to go along with your username. You can use any string of letters and numbers here as long as you can remember it. We recommend at least eight characters.
  • Resource: This is mostly arbitrary. However, it is generally used to tell others which chat client you’re using, so it might be helpful to put Home, Pidgin, iChat or whatever you use here.
  • Alias:  Again, this is arbitrary. You can put how you’d like your name to appear here if you find your screen name unattractive.
  • Now, if and only if you have not already registered on the server you have chosen, click the Register button. If you are already registered, click on the Save/Connect/OK/etc. button. Hopefully your chat client will have some way to indicate to you whether or not you’re connected at this point.

Connect to a chatroom. (IMPORTANT!!!)

Different clients work different ways here. Some will make you add a chatroom link to your buddy list (Pidgin) and others will just give you the option of connecting without saving any link to the room (Trillian Pro… don’t ask). It is up to you to find the option to add/join a chat room. Once you find that, here are the details you need to know:

  • Account: If you’re connected to more than one account using your chat client, make sure you choose the Jabber account you want to chat from here.
    *Note, you can register on the Weather.IM server for an account.
  • Room: This is where you choose what room you would like to chat in. The Central Alabama Skywarn spotter chat is “bmxspotterchat”.
  • Server: Change this to
  • HandleWe would highly prefer here that you use a first or last name, and your best description of your location (e.g. brown-west_alabaster, porter-jasper, david-livingston). This will help us to relay highly accurate reports by location to the NWS.  It will also help us in pinpointing users in areas where significant weather has occurred. Please be responsible.
  • Password: Leave blank.
  • Click Join

That’s it! If you’re not automatically transported into the chat room. You should see iembot as one of the people in the room, and, if your chat client supports it, backlogged reports from the iembot.

Adding chat to your buddy list.

The following steps must be followed, if using a GMail account with BMXSpotterChat:

The following is the rest of the steps, for everyone else:

  • Click Buddies
  • Click Add Chat
  • Account: be sure your XMPP acct from above shows here
  • Room: bmxspotterchat
  • Server:
  • Check to ensure that your handle is as above (e.g. brown-west_alabaster, porter-jasper, david-livingston)
  • Alias: Arbitrary. You can change this if you want to see something other than for the name (try “bmxspotterchat“).
  • Select Add
  • Group: You might see this if the chat client lets you add room links to your list. In this case, this is the buddy group it will be listed under.
  • double-click the link your buddy list to the room. You should see iembot as one of the people in the room, and, if your chat client supports it, backlogged reports from the iembot.

Now you are ready to chat at a moments notice just by double clicking bmxspotterchat from your Buddy List

Tips on Reporting Severe Weather


Spotters provide an invaluable service to their communities and to the National Weather Service. Spotter reports help your community by assisting local public safety officials in making critical decisions to protect lives – when to sound sirens, activate safety plans, etc

Spotter reports also help the NWS in the warning process. Your report becomes part of the warning decision making process, and is combined with radar data and other information and used by NWS forecasters to decide whether or not to:

  • Issue a new warning
  • Cancel an existing warning
  • Continue a warning
  • Issue a warning for the next county
  • Change the warning type (from severe thunderstorm to tornado, for example)

For your reports to be the most useful, they should be as detailed, accurate and timely as possible.  Use the guidelines below to help you make your report:

The Importance of Coordination

Spotter networks usually work best when a central location (an EOC, ALERT, or warning point, for example) collects reports from the local spotter network, then relays a consolidated report to the National Weather Service. This reduces duplicate reports and makes the system flow smoothly.


“I am 3 miles north of Jasper on Highway 78. I see a tornado about 5 miles to my southwest. It looks to be moving east along County Road 20”

Weather Events

Although reporting criteria may vary slightly depending on the spotter network and local needs, these are the events the National Weather Service would like to know about as soon as possible:


   Able to see damage at the ground occurring.


  Organized, persistent, sustained rotation.


Dime size or larger Report the largest size hailstone.


58 mph or higher Specify estimate or measurement.


  Flooding that closes roads and impacts homes or businesses.  Generally more than nuisance flooding.


  Damage to structures (roof, siding, windows, etc)
Damage to vehicles (from hail or wind)
Trees or large limbs down and the size of these objects if known
Power/telephone poles or lines down
Damage to farm equipment, machinery, etc

Some commonly used hail sizes


.25 inch

Golf Ball

1.75 inch


.50 inch

Hen Egg

2.00 inch


.75 inch

Tennis Ball

2.50 inch


.88 inch


2.75 inch


1.00 inch

Tea Cup

3.00 inch

Half Dollar

1.25 inch


4.00 inch

Ping Pong Ball

1.50 inch


4.50 inch

General Guidelines for Estimating Wind Speeds

30-44 mph (26-39 kt)

Whole trees in motion. Inconvenient walking into the wind. Light-weight loose objects (e.g., lawn furniture) tossed or toppled.

45-57 mph (39-49 kt)

Large trees bend; twigs, small limbs break and a few larger dead or weak branches may break. Old/weak structures (e.g., sheds, barns) may sustain minor damage (roof, doors). Buildings partially under construction may be damaged. A few loose shingles removed from houses.

58-74 mph (50-64 kt)

Large limbs break; shallow rooted trees pushed over. Semi-trucks overturned. More significant damage to old/weak structures. Shingles, awnings removed from houses; damage to chimneys and antennas.

75-89 mph (65-77 kt)

Widespread damage to trees with large limbs down or trees broken/uprooted. Mobile homes may be pushed off foundation or overturned. Roof may be partially peeled off industrial/commercial/ warehouse buildings. Some minor roof damage to homes. Weak structures (e.g., farm buildings, airplane hangars) may be severely damaged.

90+ mph (78+ kt)

Many large trees broken and uprooted. Mobile homes damaged. Roofs partially peeled off homes and buildings. Moving automobiles pushed off the road. Barns, sheds demolished.


Your severe weather report should be detailed but concise, and should address the following questions:

  • WHAT did you see?
  • WHERE did you see it?  
    Report the location/approximate location of the event.
    Be sure to distinguish clearly between where you are and where the event is thought to be happening (“I’m 5 miles north of Jasper. The tornado looks to be about 5 miles to my northwest”).
  • WHEN did you see it?
    Be sure that reports that are relayed through spotter chat or HAM radio carry the time of the event, NOT the report time.
  • Any other details that are important
    How long did it last? Direction of travel? Was there damage? etc.

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ALERT / National Weather Service Birmingham Coverage Area

  • ALERT covers the BMX county warning area. Presently, this includes: Autauga, Barbour, Bibb, Blount, Bullock, Calhoun, Chambers, Cherokee, Chilton, Clay, Cleburne, Coosa, Dallas, Elmore, Etowah, Fayette, Greene, Hale, Jefferson, Lamar, Lee, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Marion, Montgomery, Perry, Pickens, Pike, Randolph, Russell, Shelby, St Clair, Sumter, Talladega, Tallapoosa, Tuscaloosa, Walker, Winston
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