Of Character: Oklahoma meteorologist recognized for innovation
NORMAN — “The Weather Today is good and Fair” is written atop a crayon drawing framed and hanging on an office wall in the National Weather Center.
The office is that of Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Norman forecast office.
The drawing on a canvas of notebook paper dates to when Smith, 51, was in first or second grade.
Also in Smith’s office is a citation he received earlier this month in Phoenix called The Francis W. Reichelderfer Award, presented by the American Meteorological Society. This was given “For vision, long-standing dedication, and the use of innovative technologies to enhance public safety in preparing for; and responding to, severe weather.”
Next month, Smith will travel to Silver Spring, Md., to receive the Department of Commerce Bronze Medal, the highest honor granted by the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere.
He is receiving the award “For his vision and dedication in the application of social media to advance the goals of ‘Weather-Ready Nation.’”
The story in between the childhood forecast and the national honors depicts Smiths’ deep, life-long fascination with weather and a not-so-typical path taken on the way to becoming a meteorologist.
From student to staff
Born and raised around Memphis, Tenn., Smith absorbed everything he could find on thunderstorms and tornadoes.
“I think I went through the same things a lot of boys do when it came to career aspirations — fireman, policeman — but the number one goal was always to be a meteorologist,” Smith said, “and for as long as I can remember it was to be a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
“I wrote letters to the local office to get brochures, and I even helped my fourth-grade teacher set up a tour of the NWS office in Memphis for our class.”
But life, like weather, is seldom easily predictable.
Smith didn’t go to college immediately after high school and ended up working a series of odd jobs, ranging from managing a convenience store to learning to drive a truck and working for a beer distributor.
“Obviously, none of these were what I really wanted to be doing, so I Iooked for ways to get closer to my true passion — weather,” he said.
When Smith learned that the National Weather Service in Memphis used volunteer storm spotters to help them during severe weather, he got his amateur radio license and became a spotter.
Soon, Smith got involved as one of the operators who actually went to the National Weather Service office during severe weather, “and this was my first big break.” He got to know the leader of that office “and we hit it off pretty well.”
Smith’s wife, Christina, encouraged him to go to college to get a degree and pursue this fascination with weather.
Coincidentally his full-time entry-level job with the National Weather Service would be in the Memphis office he had visited on the fourth-grade field trip. Smith went on to work at the office in Tulsa and then Fort Worth, Texas, before being hired in 2002 for “my dream job at NWS Norman.”
“I could not be more proud of the work our staff did before, during and after the May 2013 tornadoes,” said Smith, who resides in Norman. “I would never want to go through any of it again, but I am thankful that the men and women of NWS Norman who work so hard behind the scenes to help keep people safe got some of the recognition they deserve for their dedication to public service.
“There has not been a week that’s gone by since May of 2013 where someone from our office has not been speaking, presenting, thinking or reviewing the events of those deadly days in May.
“I’m proud not just of the office’s accomplishments, but how we worked as members of a much larger team of emergency managers and the media to help people prepare for and recover from those horrible storms.”
Smith’s work in Norman in recent years has included the use of social media by that forecast office.
Meteorologists there started an official Facebook page in early 2011, and the Norman office activated its official Twitter account just before the May 24, 2011, tornado outbreak. In January 2013, the Norman forecast office added YouTube to its social media toolbox.
“As long as I’ve been involved in weather, I have been fascinated by the communication of warnings and information, and what people do with that knowledge,” Smith said. “Social media was an exciting new way to not only tell people what was going to happen, but to also get to know them better and to listen to them.
“I was excited about it from the very first time I used Twitter to communicate weather information, and today it’s grown beyond anything I would have imagined. The weather community has been able to reach people who we might have never been able to talk to before, and we know that it made a difference for many people in the 2013 tornadoes.
“There were people whose only source of warnings and information on May 19 and 20, 2013, was Twitter or Facebook, and they credit our posts with making a difference in how they responded, and in some cases how they amplified our message by convincing their family and friends to take the threat seriously.”