The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration invited 50 Boy Scouts from the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area on Friday to attend a daylong course in weather safety that would not only teach them how to protect themselves in severe weather situations but also help them earn a weather merit badge.
The pilot program had been in the planning for nearly two months. But, after last week's Iowa tornado killed four Boy Scouts and injured 40 others at a Scout camp, the organizers were concerned.
Susan Buchanan, the NOAA staffer planning the course told the participants, "Saddened by those tragic events, we huddled as a group and had to figure out how to proceed. We decided the best way to honor the Boys Scouts in Iowa is to continue with our day of fun and learning." The participants did observe a moment of silence for their fellow scouts.
The Boy Scouts met with National Weather Service meteorologists and spent the day in small work groups learning how to recognize severe weather — reading weather maps, learning safety procedures and how to protect themselves when storms approach.
As they walked into the Weather Safety class, even before they could sit down, the instructor pointed to a large funnel cloud on the large screen and said, "Do you know what that is? What should we do?"
Everyone promptly agreed that they were looking at a tornado and had to get out of the windowed classroom to make their way to an enclosed stairway and go to the basement. To make the exercise real, they left the room and sought shelter.
Will Shaffer, Scout master and head of the NOAA Evaluation branch, who was teaching the class, said, "We may emphasize tornadoes a lit bit more now, but there are other aspects of weather they need to be aware of [such as] winter storms, flash floods."
The boys ranged in age, from 11 to 16, and were asked to pick out misconceptions about dealing with weather. The instructors got their attention when they showed actual tornado video of cars being tossed around like cardboard boxes. "Do you think it would be a good idea to take shelter in a car during a tornado?" their teacher asked. "No, no way!" they responded.
In the Weather Forecasting class, they were shown how weather fronts form, how clouds are made, why hailstones can grow to be the size of softballs, and to know the difference between a watch and a warning. Each Scout was asked to draw a weather front.
Eli Jacks, chief of Fire and Public Weather Service and formerly a teacher, volunteered to teach the Scouts. He admits that he never learned to tie a knot as a Scout.
"The Scout motto is to be prepared, and that is what our business is about. There is a wide variety of hazards we wanted the Boy Scouts to be aware of, and make sure they knew what the proper response was when our watches and weather warnings go out."
Jacks admits that it was an intense lesson for the young crowd, and they did "try to pack in an entire 3-year degree in meteorology in 45 minutes."
The National Weather Service extended the invitation to the Boy Scout council, and within four days all the slots were taken. Twice as many Scouts were still on the waiting list for the next group session.
Donna Franklin, co-planner of this Weather Safety course and a National Weather Service employee hopes the program will expand to the other 123 weather forecast offices throughout the United States.
"As Boy Scouts, they spend a lot of time outside in the wilderness, being prepared, knowing weather patterns, knowing what to expect, having a NOAA weather radio. Having specific action steps will really help them in keeping safe," Franklin said.
The course is designed around the weather merit badge requirements. When the scouts leave at the end of the day, they have two remaining tasks: to talk to their family about safety and to give a five-minute presentation to their troop.
Matthew Heffernan, 14, from Reston, Md., said he learned that "tornadoes are not anything to be messed with. In movies you see people running and spazzing, but you really should try to get low and find shelter for yourself."
Matthew saw the connection between weather and scouting. "At all camp outs, you are at the mercy of the weather. If you forget to bring your rain fly, you are pretty much dead," he said. "Scouting is very closely tied to the weather."
Kai Jepson, 11, from Silver Spring, Md., said he thought "it was very tragic what happened to the Scouts in Iowa, and it was sad for the families of those Scouts and troop members."
Having spent his first day of summer vacation with the weather professionals, we asked Kai if he knows what to do if he has to deal with a tornado. The young scout said, "I think I will be prepared."