Monday, July 18, 2011

Employee Spotlight: Matthew Budwill

Matthew Budwill is a mild mannered system administrator by day, but in his free time he’s an adventure seeking storm chaser!

The Rio Salado College employee has been chasing storms in Arizona and across the country for the last 15 years. He started out as an amateur doing time-lapse photography at night and has evolved through both training and experience into a certified SKYWARN spotter.

“I kind of stumbled across it,” Budwill said. “It just started out through my photography doing time-lapse at night. Over the years I’ve amassed more training and now storm chasing is what I do. “

Budwill received training as a storm spotter from the National Weather Service. As a certified SKYWARN spotter, he is able to report severe weather events and storm damage to any NWS office.

“While I’m out, I issue weather reports to the national weather service that allows them to issue warnings. I send in damage reports so they can analyze what happened during a storm. And of course if someone is broken down or a victim or something, I’m able to stop and assist,” Budwill said.

Although he has had some formal training, quite a few of Budwill’s skills were self-taught or incidental.
“I was looking for new technology to use so that while I’m out I can upload GPS data in real time. Along with that technology, came training for how to more safely maneuver around tornadoes and such,” he said.

Budwill operates completely out of his truck which is equipped with GPS, full internet capability, three hand held cameras, and a high definition dash-cam capable of streaming live video to his Web site, He also has a dew point sensor that he engineered himself. “It’s based on a fairly standard design, but it took 3 years of trial and error to get it the way I wanted it,” Budwill said.

The truck also has custom headlights and a light bar that can be seen from up to 10 miles away. Budwill can track his location through an iPhone app called Radar Scope which helps him keep a safe distance.

“With tornadoes I’m very cautious,” Budwill said. “I chase with radar. Even on my cell phone I have GPS enabled radar so I can see exactly where I am in relation to the storm.”

Budwill chases all kinds of storms and weather conditions. He said location plays a big part in what he expects to see. “In the Midwest you’re looking for a different kind of footage. Tornado footage, hail damage…stuff like that.” He added, “Around here, people are more focused on dust storms and haboobs as well as lightning. In the Midwest they get a lot of cloud to cloud. Around here we get more cloud to ground, so it’s a lot more impressive in photographs.”

As for the haboob that struck Phoenix on July 5, Budwill said it’s the first time in 15 years that he’s shied away from a storm for safety reasons. “It’s probably the worst one I’ve seen in my 15 years chasing, or actually 20 years that I’ve been living here.”

“I will chase pretty much anything because I’m trained to, but I didn’t want to chase that one because I didn’t feel safe,” Budwill said. “I’ve almost been struck by lightning five times, which is five times too many.

According to Budwill, visibility and wind speeds are the most dangerous elements of those types of storms. “Debris is not such a big deal around here. Mostly it’s just dirt, but I have had a headlight broken by a very dense tumbleweed.”