From his perch on a hilltop northwest of Newton, John Wickenkamp hunkers down with his ham radio and watches the horizon.
He's done this for 30 years. As one of Newton's half-dozen volunteer storm spotters for the National Weather Service (NWS), Wickenkamp listens intently for the automated call that his area of Iowa is under a watch or warning. When it comes, he grabs his mobile radio and scrambles for the outskirts of town, ready to dispatch what he sees to local authorities and the NWS.
"Weather service radar can't confirm whether a funnel cloud is on the ground—but we can," says Wickenkamp, a longtime Maytag tool engineer who retired in 1989 after 40 years of service (save a 21-month military leave). "They depend heavily on spotters to report wall clouds, tornadoes, heavy rain, hail, and lightning, so they can tell folks to seek shelter."
Although he's never felt in personal danger, Wickenkamp's first storm experience in 1983 left him with a lasting impression of Mother Nature's fury. He came within a mile of a large tornado that touched down in northwest Jasper County near the towns of Mingo and Baxter. Luckily, no one died. But even the safest, most skilled storm watchers—like the three men who perished in a F-3 twister in El Reno, Okla., this past May—become vulnerable in a powerful storm.
"If we can prevent any casualties by being out there, then it's worth it to me," says Wickenkamp, who attends new weather service safety training sessions every year.
A two-way radio system with various frequencies assigned by the Federal Communications Commission, ham radios allow operators to talk with people all over the world. Wickenkamp first became interested while watching his engineer friends chat on the air in the UI's Quadrangle. In 1950, shortly after his graduation, he earned his own amateur radio license and has been an operator ever since.
In exchange for the FCC frequencies, ham radio operators agree to public service. For Wickenkamp, that means three decades of staring at the sky from his Newton hill. He likes keeping his neighbors safe and enjoys the work. Still, he says: "I'm just glad we don't have hurricanes here."