By Kate Stow
A local ham radio operator has been named the 2022 National Weather Service Spotter of the Year. Bryan Loper, a lifelong Atlanta resident and 1977 graduate of Atlanta High School, was chosen from thousands of other spotters in a four-state region that includes 48 counties and parishes in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana.
According to the December Newsletter of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the award is given annually on December 3rd, which is “SKYWARN Recognition Day” (SRD), an event that recognizes SKYWARN volunteers for their contribution to public safety. ARRL, founded in 1914 by Hiram Percy Maxim, is the national association for amateur radio in the United States.
Each year, SRD is observed by several National Weather Service (NWS) locations across the United States. Amateur radio volunteers set up temporary operations from forecasting headquarters to make contacts with other stations to demonstrate their readiness to operate in emergency conditions and to act as observers for the NWS. As of the last count there were over 4,700 SKYWARN spotters taking part in SRD.
Radio Amateurs participating as SKYWARN volunteers assist the NWS with real-time observations of adverse weather conditions that pose an imminent threat to life and property. Those alerts may include tornadoes, waterspouts, damaging hail, blizzard conditions, sleet, strong winds, heavy rainfalls and flooding, dust storms, damage assessment, and other significant anomalies. NWS personnel can utilize information from ham radio operators to issue alerts or assess threat levels to areas that may be affected by abnormal conditions.
Bryan started weather-watching several years before learning to use a ham radio. “My dad was a big weather buff,” said Bryan. “When he died I got a personal weather station and became a KTBS Weather Watcher, and it’s evolved over the last ten or twelve years.”
While people are more familiar with the term “storm chaser,” as depicted in the 1996 film “Twister,” Bryan is quick to clarify the difference in “chasing” and “spotting.”
“Storm spotting is learning to read the cloud formations and determine what is going to happen,” he said. “We don’t chase anything.”
While working with the meteorologists at KTBS TV Channel 3 in Shreveport, Bryan got to know the people at the National Weather Service in Shreveport and became familiar with the SKYWARN system. He was named the Net Control Officer, and for several years he would drive from Atlanta to Shreveport to activate the SKYWARN system that signals a weather warning.
“I would have to drive through rain, sleet, hail, tornadoes, whatever, to get to the office to activate it. That’s what got me to learn how to use a ham radio,” he said. “Now I just activate it from home.”
The local radio wave network was built by the late Steven Smith and Jim Collom – both ham radio buffs with a shared goal of protecting Cass County from disasters by ensuring that communication with the rest of the world would never be compromised. A tower and hub were located on Cusseta Mountain – the highest elevation in Cass County – off Highway 77 between Douglassville and Naples. Steven and Jim both worked tirelessly, convincing amateur radio groups all over Texas and beyond to join the network, which they named Freedom Link Group, Inc. The network stretches from West Texas to Eastern Arkansas and Louisiana.
The Freedom Link Group Inc. amateur radio repeater system is a SkyWarn linked repeater system that is used to report severe weather throughout the ARK-LA-TEX. It is used and is a partner of the NWS in Shreveport for ground truth information and reporting within the NWS’s CWA coverage area, and to help save lives during severe weather outbreaks across the ARK-LA-TEX.
The system is also used as a FEMA Certified ARES/RACES linking system that is used with the Texas Division of Emergency Management. The sole purpose for the system is for passing along emergency information during disaster situations within the state. The system not only uses voice transmission, but emails can also be instantly sent over the radio waves.
“When Steven died, Jim kept it going on his own. When he developed some health issues, I bought the system,” said Bryan. “In order to fund it, I sold shares and turned it into a (501c3) Nonprofit Organization. We take donations and every penny goes back into maintenance and upgrades.”
Bryan has listed the Freedom Link Group project on www.fundrazr.com to accept tax-deductible donations. The project will be to fund necessary equipment that is outdated such as batteries and battery chargers. ETC (new technology) LifePo4 Lithium Batteries are needed for each site to retain battery backup reliability when electrical power is lost.
“We also plan to add a solar charging system to each repeater site. New repeater controllers are needed as backup equipment, to link to other repeater linking systems,” Bryan said, adding that “each lithium battery cost $300, and it takes three per site.”
“Steven and Jim were light years ahead in creating this system to protect the community. When ‘it’ hits the fan, I’ll be able to communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world,” said Bryan, who is known as “WX5CSS, of Atlanta, Texas” on the radio.
Being the premiere storm spotter of the Ark-La-Tex sounds like it should be a full-time job, but Bryan also possesses some mad multitasking skills. He has worked at the Graphic Packaging Texarkana Mill since graduating high school 45 years ago, where he holds the title of “Learning Leader” in the Finishing and Shipping Department. In that capacity he oversees all the training and new hire orientation.
Bryan lives just four blocks from where he was born (the former site of Ellington Clinic and Hospital on Hiram Street). He and wife, Sarah, have four children between them and a grandson, Rowdy, who loves the weather and radio stuff in his Papa’s home office.
Bryan is also active on social media and is the administrator of the Facebook Page “Weather Watcher TXATLBL1.” Follow that page for constantly updated severe weather information.
“It’s about saving lives – everything I do and every penny I spend is worth it to support and protect my community,” Bryan said. “I think this is the road Steven would have gone down with this system. He was a fine man, and I feel like I am carrying the torch for he and Jim.”