Bogus Storm Reports Probed

Some people are just too bored. This is a really stupid thing to do and can cause some serious problems. I hope that nab this person and put them away for a while.

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Bogus storm reports probed

FBI joins search for fake warning source

By AMY GUCKEEN
aguckeen@journalsentinel.com
Posted: June 10, 2007

The FBI has joined the effort to find whoever has been sending false reports of severe weather to the National Weather Service.

The service began getting the reports in mid-April through an online form on its Web site. The areas affected by the reports have included Milwaukee, La Crosse, Chicago, and Lincoln, Ill., said Tom Schwein, chief of the National Weather Service’s systems and facilities division for the central region in Kansas City, Mo.

“We’ve been detecting a regular pattern of a person who has been submitting false severe weather reports that are constructed in a way that seem very realistic,” Schwein said. “Whoever this person is seems to have knowledge of severe weather reports. When they send in reports, they seem very plausible.”

Schwein likened the reports to calling in a false bomb threat or pulling a fire alarm when there is no fire.

“People had to take cover, media interrupted their broadcasting for hours – we’ve alerted people unnecessarily and frightened them. This person has really misled us,” Schwein said.

Over 25 false reports were submitted from the same computer over one weekend earlier this month, and the service typically gets 40 to 50 a month from that source, said Schwein. It does not appear that any bogus reports were sent from the computer last Thursday, during the latest severe weather events, according to Pat Slattery of the Weather Service.

“This has happened sporadically around the country,” said Schwein. “But anytime there is a weather pattern, we see this person reporting in. That’s what’s so unusual.”

The public can use a form on weather service local Web sites to anonymously report weather conditions in their areas. Since the onset of the false reports, the agency has added a notice in red at the top of the form that submitting false statements is a federal crime. The listed offense carries a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Schwein said investigators have traced the Internet protocol address of the computer sending the false reports, and any new reports from that address are being flagged. The FBI is working with the weather service to subpoena records about who is registered for the computer IP address, he said.

Time, location line up

On April 25, a report came in stating that a tornado causing damage and injuries had hit Blue Mound, Ill. Local NBC affiliate WAND-TV in Decatur, Ill., interrupted normal broadcasting to give wall-to-wall coverage of the severe weather for approximately three hours, said Lee Davis, chief meteorologist with WAND-TV.

“We were getting warnings from the National Weather Service which seemed inconsistent with the data I was showing on my radar,” Davis said.

Severe weather was already present in Macon County, where Blue Mound is located. The tornado warning that was issued for the county through the Emergency Management Agency was given based on spotter reports, not on the false report, said Phil Anello, the emergency agency’s coordinator for Macon County. Nevertheless, the reports of damage and injuries were false. That’s part of the pattern – false reports submitted when severe weather is already present in an area, making them more believable, Schwein said.

“The time and location of the report will line up very well with our satellite and radar data,” Schwein said. “They’ll report damage that fits the structure of the storm.”

Forecasters consider radar, environment and spotter reports before alerting the public of severe weather, said Rusty Kapela, warning coordination meteorologist with the weather service’s Milwaukee/Sullivan office.

“We need two out of three in most cases to push the meteorologist past the point where they’ll issue a warning,” Kapela said. “Two out of three takes it.”

The false reports coming through the public Web site differ from reports from trained spotters who register with the weather service and must log-in to sites with a password. More credibility is given to spotter reports, Kapela said.

“They’ve been told what to report and how to report it,” Kapela said of the trained spotters. “If we get a report from a private citizen, we may or may not believe it, because they have not attended the class.”

Residents can become trained weather spotters for the National Weather Service by registering with their local agency and attending a spotter training class.

“The radar can’t tell us everything,” said Davis, the TV meteorologist. “It’s those trained spotter reports that really make a difference in public safety.”

A record of spotter names is kept at each weather service branch. Schwein said that the falsified weather reports were not a case of a trained spotter filing erroneous reports.

To combat the false reports, forecasters with the National Weather Service have begun checking the IP address of every report, in addition to taking extra care in their analysis.

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About Putnam Reiter

Putnam has been storm chasing since 1990 and is a co-founder of Hook-Echo.com. For his day job, Putnam works in emergency management for information technology.
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