NOAA weather radio “needs some serious upgrades”

The Midland WR120 weather radio.

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dennis Dura, who shares the following article from Slate:

The Radio System That Keeps Us Safe From Extreme Weather Is Under Threat

NOAA Weather Radio needs some serious upgrades.

In March, a group of massive tornadoes struck communities around Des Moines, Iowa. Seven people were killed, including two children under 5. The crisis received attention not only due to its human cost, but also because of delays in emergency wireless communications: Thanks to a broken fiber optic cable at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Weather Service offices, wireless emergency transmissions were switched to an auxiliary satellite system, which all NWS offices use. Overloaded with extreme weather messages from elsewhere in the Midwest, the satellite messaging system found itself backed up just as the Iowa tornadoes reached their peak. This caused anywhere from a two- to nine-minute delay in tornado warning messages—and may have significantly reduced warning time at a moment when seconds count. The issue lasted for several hours as the deadly tornadoes ripped through the state.

NOAA Weather Radio, on the other hand, continued broadcasting effectively during the crisis. According to Bruce Jones, a weather radio expert and meteorologist with Midland Radio Corporation, “because the NWR broadcast comes direct from the National Weather Service local forecast office, those NOAA Weather Radio alerts and warnings were unimpeded and reached folks immediately.”

Often referred to as the “voice” of the National Weather Service, NOAA Weather Radio is a 24/7 public service that broadcasts weather information from more than 1,000 stations across the United States and many of its territories. And while Des Moines was a great success story for NOAA Weather Radio, the service faces mounting issues with aging technology and infrastructure, raising concerns over whether it will be able to continue protecting communities facing extreme weather.

[…]While NOAA Weather Radio has historically been an important, consistent, and life-saving means of emergency communication, it may not be for long. Outdated technology and failed attempts at modernization are threatening the NOAA Weather Radio system and resulting in extended outages for locations at risk. And as the climate crisis intensifies, this important technology is often vulnerable to the weather about which it’s meant to inform.

Interviews with NWS employees about outages reveal many local technical problems that take out communications, sometimes for weeks or months.

[…]Recent congressional action, however, has given new life to the possibility of systemic weather radio modernization. Rep. Stephanie Bice, a Republican from Oklahoma, has proposed the NOAA Weather Radio Modernization Act of 2021, which passed in the House of Representatives in May but has yet to pass in the Senate. From Oklahoma, Bice was well aware of the need for consistent weather communications during natural disasters like tornadoes, which affect her constituents.

The bill would authorize $20 million to expand coverage to the remaining 5 percent of the country without access to NOAA Weather Radio communications, as well as $40 million to modernize its hardware and software, including upgrading communication from copper wires to Internet services. According to Wesley Harkins, a representative from Bice’s office, “this paves the way for future development and provides failsafe options, so NWR is never down for an extended period of time.”

[…]The NWS itself acknowledges the benefits of this legislation. Maureen O’Leary, deputy director of public affairs at the NOAA, told me via email that improvements would include “expanding NWR coverage to rural and underserved communities, national parks, and recreation areas.”[…]

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24 thoughts on “NOAA weather radio “needs some serious upgrades”

  1. Dennis Dura

    SAABs also had WX Radio channels integrated into their audio systems. The only feature that was missing vwad a way to program SAME codes.

  2. Paul Evans

    28 years ago I attended the ARRL DCC conference (for all things radio AND digital) representing a leading digital manufacturer. There was a guy there from the Kansas office of NWS ( non-amateur). We talked advanced technology for taking the Weather Radio system to a better level. Part of this was to leave some of the existing FM service running because of the millions of existing receivers out there (used or not). However, we talked of pinching 2 channels and have them continuously send compressed radar image data, locally or nationally derived. He went away enthused. I found out later that this was too radical and new for the management to accept.
    With tiny handheld receivers, displays, processing power, GPS and battery improvements this could be radically different, accurate and ‘affordable’.
    Mind you, later as CTO of another company in 2004, we waited many, many years bidding on navigation and delivery systems for the 400,000 USPS trucks that were supposed to be replaced. Something they are closer to but squabbling over and the number has been dropped to 20-30% of that number. Things go very slowly in these organisations (directly government controlled or not). I think they want it just to fade away – just in time for retirement!

    1. Tom Servo

      What an interesting concept to send radar data on one of the unused weather radio channels! That could have led to some potentially useful products in the days before widespread mobile internet.

      A few cars (Cadillacs and Subarus?) have or had weather radio integrated into the in-dash stereo; I could imagine some higher end models even incorporating the weather radar data display if this concept had come to fruition.

      These days, NWS weather radar ought to be something that you could call up on the in car entertainment system through either Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, or from data transmitted by HD Radio (which already does fuel prices, traffic and other info in selected metro areas.)

      It’s a shame no one’s figured out how to do that yet.

  3. mangosman

    Briain & Ted,
    In Australia cell phone base stations as well as fibre to the Node street boxes contain batteries which will last 3 hours, but this will reduce is if maintenance is neglected. For those who have fibre to the premises is the box which converts pulses of light to pulses of electricity and back again battery backed up?
    How many householder’s have UPS on their modem & smart speakers?

    Do the radio stations in your area have generators to keep running for days?

  4. Brian

    This story has several parallels to the emergency communications / amateur radio relationship issue. The Feds keep tossing money at hardening communications and assuring state and local governments that bandwidth will be there when they need it (just about everything the feds are building for emergency comms is IP-based). Yet, repeatedly, Mother Nature, poor system design, poor implementation, and infrastructure neglect exercise their vote, and folks with HF radios get asked to help out. It’s this Captain Obvious-level realization that led to the creation of SHARES. My advice to local EMAs is to deepen your comms bench – embrace the guys and gals with the old-school ham radio gear. There’s no cost to you, and they are happy to help.

  5. Ted

    I had never thought about state of NOAA and that it may be under threat, I assumed it was a given and would always remain operational. Having said that I live in Canada and Weather Radio here uses the same frequencies. Apparently Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) is soliciting feedback on decommissioning 48 out of 230 weather radio transmitters here. Citing such overlap as cell phones, marine radio and the internet being favoured over weatherradio. Thanks to Dennis for sharing this info about NOAA north of the border, it is an eye opener and I would suggest that any Canadians which are concerned about the decommissioning of towers here should input their view to ECCC here.

  6. Dennis Dura

    For those with suggestions or want to support this Bill, do write your elected “representatives”. My intent was to raise awareness, nothing more. Thanks for posting Thomas.

  7. mangosman

    NOAA is 1936 FM technology. It can only do one thing. shows DRM emergency warnings whilst the rest of the audience continues to listen to their stereo programming. This means that advertising can pay for the transmitters and the listeners have more incentive to buy receivers.

    DRM can transmit on any frequency from 530 kHz – 88 MHz including the HF (SW) an old analog VHF TV bands. This is already happening for 1300 million Indians.(US 332 million) .DRM receivers are standard equipment in 5 million new Indian cars and the number is rapidly rising.

    1. Tom Servo


      You know why we’re still using such old technology? It works. It’s cheap. It’s effective. DRM is not the answer to this. At least not anytime soon.

    2. Radioguy

      DRM is a solution looking for a problem.
      YES, Analog FM is old technology. Analog AM is even older. And so long as people let them, they will work. It’s when people start deprecating these things as ‘old fashioned’ and push to something new (like cell ‘phone’ networks) that the problems start out. Did you READ the article? ….

      1. mangosman

        FM cannot carry images and even if it could existing receivers cannot display it.
        AM is very wasteful of electricity. The carrier contains no information, and is between 67 – 100 % of the radiated signal, let alone cooling the transmitter for that extra power. Not only increasing costs but also carbon dioxide generation by electricity generators.
        FM transmitters need much greater output power compared to DRM in the same band because in weak signal FM receivers switch to mono and mute, where as DRM continues to decode stereo radio.
        6 consecutive DRM channels carrying 3 audio audio channels each and data can be radiated by a single FM transmitter. Any of the 186 kbit/s per DRM channel can be used for sound , images or text.. ie 1 HD channel in the FM band is 400 kHz wide where as 4 DRM channels will fit in that spectrum.
        AM and FM cannot transmit data, HD radio has a maximum data capacity of 96 kbit/s half of which would have to be used for sound, In the FM band the digital signal is very weak compared to the FM signal to prevent interference to other broadcasters and your own.
        Nearly all new Indian cars are fitted with DRM radios as standard equipment, there are already 5 million of these and the number is rapidly rising.

        1. radioguy

          You’ve made a lot of statements here that tell me you have NO idea what radio actually can and cannot do. Either that or you’ve swallowed the lies hook line and sinker.

          AM and FM CAN carry images. You’ve heard of analog TV haven’t you? And then there’s SSTV and MFSK images that can even be sent in SSB (no carrier or redundant sideband needed) as well as AM or FM. Any ‘analog’ radio can receive these things, and with the proper accoutrements (like a video screen and decoding hardware) it can display images just fine.
          I mean, we used to have these things called ‘TV sets’ that did just that! Right?

          As for bandwidth, well, it depends on what you want to use that bandwidth for. And remember the old adage “KISS” (Keep It Simple Stupid) … there is nothing ‘simpler’ than a radio meant to receive AM. A diode will do the trick in a pinch. Does it use a lot of energy to transmit? Sure, but how much MORE energy does it take to maintain the internet with all those servers, data farms and the like? Maybe we should turn off the Internet to save power?

          And AM and FM can also transmit data. MFSK can be broadcast in either, and there is even a fully deployed and operational system called “RDS” (Radio Data System) available and in use around the world to ‘piggyback’ digital data onto an analog FM signal. Car radios often have this implemented and there are even a few table and portable radios that do too.

          Nope — you’re barking up the wrong tree here. ALL this stuff can be done with analog technologies, but the point is, emergency communications requires NONE of it. What it does require is a reliable cheap and simple system to get information out.

  8. Kevin B

    Unfortunately the system only works well if people have working weather radios that are turned on, ready to receive signals. What percentage of households is that? If I had to guess I’d say it was pretty low.

    Some news organizations have temporarily resumed shortwave to Ukraine. That’s all well and good, but how many receivers are there? Radio only works if most people have radios.

    1. Tom Servo

      I don’t know where you live, Kevin, but I’m in a hurricane-prone part of the country at weather radios are fairly common here. I came from the modern day tornado alley (central Alabama), and weather radios were *extremely* common there. Both in homes and even in some businesses.

      In both places, there’s fairly regular ongoing education on the benefits of weather radios by TV meteorologists. They partner with radio or newspapers and will go out a few times a year to drug stores and grocery stores and offer to program radios for you if you buy one at the event.

      Is it not like this everywhere? There aren’t many parts of the US where critical weather information isn’t a lifesaving necessity.

      1. Jock Elliott


        I agree.

        If I recall correctly from my Skywarn training, every state in the Union has some form of severe weather or natural disaster for which NOAA Weather Radio can provide potentially life-saving warnings.

        Cheers, Jock

  9. Robert Gulley

    Interesting article. However, I cringe somewhat at the mention of using the Internet – so many things assume the Internet will be up and/or available to folks when recent events around the world remind us of the need to maintain old-fashioned hard connectivity and old fashioned radio signals. I realize this service is not suggesting it would rely solely on the Internet of course, but I certainly hope they would also look at shoring up the old hard line connectivity as well. Multiple redundancies are never a bad thing!

  10. Steve Long

    “Failed attempts at modernization” pretty much says it all. And in typical government fashion, politicians, many or most of them lawyers, want more of it. Reading the article, it’s also pretty easy to start following the money. Simple, comparatively inexpensive, and old school technology would save the day. They need to strip off the layers of technical “modernization” and go back to a simple, robust, vhf high band solution with redundant analog office to transmitter site links. The only problem with this is that, in the often unspoken words of many politicians and high tech vendors, “If you don’t spend a lot, you can’t steal a lot.”

    1. Jock Elliott

      “They need to strip off the layers of technical “modernization” and go back to a simple, robust, vhf high band solution with redundant analog office to transmitter site links.”

      That sounds promising to me, Steve.

      Cheers, Jock

    2. TomL

      Centralized power means centralized corruption. A federalized system is at the whim of every middleman, including politicians. Somehow, the local communities need to be given more power to make local decisions where money is spent, and more importantly, scrutinized. Of course, local politicians can be just as corrupt, so something else must be done to bypass all these fingers grabbing federal dollars.

      1. Zack S

        So you think that local communities should decide now NOAA WX should used? Do radio waves stop at city boundaries? Would any city government have any idea how the system works?

        Here is an example where I live of cities making dumb decisions because they think that they will save money.. There are a lot of suburban cities in the Detroit area and each city votes on whether or not they want to be part of the bus system. The millage they vote for helps to pay for their portion of bus routes. Some cities voted to not be part of the system so now buses cannot stop in those cities. Now companies that don’t pay very well cannot get anyone to work in those cities. If one make minimum wage most likely they cannot own a car BTW. Now employers in those cities are mad because they cannot get workers.

      2. Tom Servo

        Alternate take: decentralized power means multiple smaller opportunities for corruption, and smaller corruption is easier to cover up. For all the talk of federal malfeasance, what happens at the state and local level is probably 100 fold as bad. It certainly is in Alabama. (Or it used to be, before all the local newspapers folded.)

    3. Don Turner

      I’ve never heard that saying, but it sounds very prescient especially when it comes to overpriced “war-toys”.
      Tha same people who claim to “support the troops” are actually more concerned about dividend kick-backs they receive when they authorize another weapon system at the expense of benefits/pay and services for veterans.
      Those same money hoarders have never met a single piece of personnel funding with military personnel that didn’t “need” chopping off or reducing until it’s no longer viable, in other words, they love to abort funding for veterans, but always find the excuse to pad another defence contract with more pork.


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