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 Outdated technology and failed attempts at modernization are threatening the NOAA Weather Radio system and resulting in extended outages for locations at risk.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.”[…]
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Jock Elliott, who shares the following guest post:
The Crisis Radio
By Jock Elliott, KB2GOM
Sooner or later, it will happen to you. What’s ‘it’? Short answer: a crisis.
It could be as simple as you wake in the morning to find the power is out; you don’t know how long it has been out, and you don’t know when it is coming back. It might be a weather event: a blizzard, a sandstorm, a tornado, a derecho, a hurricane. It might be a geologic event like a tsunami, earthquake, or even volcanic activity. As recent events have shown, it could even be a war or a revolution.
When normal life is disrupted, and uncertainty is perched on your shoulder like a vulture, you will want to know what’s going on, and your usual means of getting information – telephone, smart phone, internet device – may also be disrupted.
When that happens, radio can come to your rescue. Your local FM or AM (medium wave) station may be on the air, providing vital information to your community, or NOAA Weather Radio may be providing hazard information. In extreme cases, shortwave radio may be beaming information to your area when all else fails.
So I have a couple of very specific recommendations.
First, make sure that your household has a “crisis radio.” By that I mean one that will receive your local AM and FM broadcasters as well as shortwave radio, and, if you live in the US or Canada, NOAA Weather Radio. If you can afford it, I recommend getting a crisis radio that has single sideband capability (SSB) so that you have the ability to intercept ham radio communications, which might be another source of information.
Toward that end, I can heartily recommend the CCrane Skywave SSB radio. (Let’s be clear: I have no commercial connection with CCrane; I get nothing from them for making this recommendation, I purchased my Skywave SSB with my own money.) It has AM, FM, Shortwave, Weather, VHF, Aviation and SSB Bands. It is very small, measuring just 4.8″ W x 3″ H x 1″ D and weighing just 6 ounces without batteries. It will run for over 50 hours on a couple of AA batteries and comes with CC Earbuds, SkyWave SSB Carry Case, and CC SW Reel Antenna which boost sensitivity for shortwave and ham radio listening.
It is a crisis radio that you can stick in your pocket, backpack, purse or briefcase for deployment when the need arises or you simply want to listen to some radio programming. Further, you don’t have to be an expert to operate the CCrane Skywave SSB. Thanks to the Automatic Tuning System, just select the band you want to listen to, press and hold the ATS button for two seconds, and the Skywave SSB will automatically search for stations in that band (AM, FM, Shortwave, etc.) and store those stations in the memory banks for that band. You can later check those memories to hear what programming those stations are broadcasting.
Second, and this is important, if you listen to shortwave radio at all, take the time to let the stations know. Drop them a postcard; shoot them an email, do whatever you can to inform them you are listening, and you value their transmissions.
Why? Because we all want those stations to be there if and when the next crisis happens. And if your local AM or FM station provides special programming to the community a weather event or geologic emergency, for the same reason, be sure to let them know how much you appreciate their efforts.
As a fire captain observed a couple of years after the North Ridge earthquake in California: “You cannot be over-prepared for communications in an emergency.”
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Jock Elliott, who shares the following guest post:
A bit more about NOAA Weather Radio
By Jock Elliott, KB2GOM
Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m a fan, an advocate, an evangelist for NOAA Weather Radio (NWR).
Why? Because, quite simply, if you live in the United States, it is one of the very best deals you are ever likely to get. NWR is the voice of the National Weather Service. It is the fastest and most reliable means of receiving alerts when hazardous weather approaches.
NWR includes more than 1000 transmitters, covering some or all of 50 states, adjacent coastal waters, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the U.S. Pacific Territories. Broadcasts are found in the VHF public service band at these seven frequencies (MHz): 162.400, 162.425, 162.450, 162.475, 162.500, 162.525, and 162.550. Radios capable of receiving NWR signals may include consumer radios, ham radios, scanners, and dedicated weather radios.
NOAA Weather Radio is free. There are no commercials, you don’t have to wait for other programming to be completed to hear the weather forecast, and, because it is radio, you can listen and get a concise summary of what’s going on with the weather in your area while you are doing something else. Even better, the folks at the National Weather Service tell me that over 80 percent of the NWR transmitters have some form of backup or emergency power, many of which can continue to operate for 5-10 days while the main power is out. There is a wealth of information about NWR here: https://www.weather.gov/phi/nwrfaq scroll down to see details.
Why do you want a receiver that can hear NOAA Weather Radio? Short answer: because every state in the Union has some form of hazardous weather that could prove lethal. Early warning just might save your life.
In his excellent book Warnings – the true story of how science tamed the weather, Mike Smith points out how successful meteorology has been at saving lives. In the 1950s, with the beginning of the tornado warning system, the death rate from tornados was 1.5 deaths per million people. By 2009, the death rate was down to .068 deaths per million, a decrease or more than 95 percent. The investment weather radar, prediction techniques, and warning systems such as NWR has paid handsome dividends.
So what makes an NWR-capable radio good? First, sensitivity. Greater sensitivity increases the odds that the radio will be able to hear more NWR stations in your local area, which in turn raises the probability that you’ll be able to hear an NWR station with backup power when the lights go out.
Second, alert capability. An alert function – that is, the ability to put the radio in standby mode and have it automatically switch on when NWR transmits an alert tone is a great plus. You can go about your business, and the radio will wake up and alert you when you need to pay attention.
Third, advanced alert capability. Ideally, you would like to be alerted only when a hazard is close to your immediate vicinity. Some dedicated weather radios and advanced scanners offer Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) that can be programmed by the user to only alarm for weather and other emergency events in specific, desired counties, thereby eliminating unwanted alerts for areas that are not of concern to the listener. In addition, some weather radios have a selectable alert option that can be programmed to alert only when certain hazard codes – ranging from Avalanche to Winter Storm Warning – have been selected by the user and are transmitted by the local NWR station.
With that in mind, here are some NWR-capable radios with which I have had personal experience. With each radio, I did a quick search from the same location to see how many local NWR stations it would receive, as a rough indication of sensitivity. The good news is that every single one of the radios below could receive at least two NWR stations in my local area and had basic alert capabilities.
Consumer radios with AM/FM receive
CC Skywave SSB
CCrane 2E –could hear clearly 3 NWR stations in my area, basic alert function, house mains and battery power (over 200 hours).
CCrane Skywave SSB – could hear 2 NWR stations clearly and one scratchy, basic alert function, battery power (over 50 hours).
Eton FRX3+ — could hear NWR 3 stations clearly, basic alert capability, power options include solar, hand-crank dynamo, and rechargeable battery (can also be recharged off house power with USB capable), internal battery can be used to recharge cell phone battery.
Ham radio hand-talkies
Icom V80 with aftermarket high-performance antenna – could hear 2 NWR stations clearly and one scratchy, basic alert capability.
Yaesu VX-6 with Diamond 77 aftermarket antenna — could hear 2 NWR stations clearly and one scratchy, basic alert capability.
Uniden BC125AT with Diamond 77 aftermarket antenna – could hear 3 NWR stations clearly, basic alert function.
Uniden SDS200 with homebrew off-center-fed dipole antenna (see below) – could hear 6 NWR stations clearly, highly sophisticated programmable SAME and specific hazard alert functions, no battery power (the SDS100, handheld version of this scanner provides battery power); would require uninterruptible power supply or something similar if mains power goes off. Author’s note: while the performance is stellar, this is by far the most expensive option. With the stock antenna that comes with the SDS200, I could hear two NWR stations clearly.
Dedicated NOAA Weather Radio Receiver
Midland WR120 Weather Alert Radio – At the time I began this write-up, I did not own a dedicated weather radio receiver, so I reached out to www.midlandusa.com, and they were kind enough to send me this unit, which is built solely to receive National Weather Radio stations. With the built-in whip antenna extended, the receiver was clearly very sensitive. I could hear 4 of my local NWR stations clearly, and 2 more scratchy but copyable. If you are in a fringe area, there is a socket for plugging in an external antenna such as the one I describe below.
There is a little symbol on the box that says “EZ Progamming,” and I was pleasantly surprised that it was true. Between the MENU and SELECT keys, it is easy to walk through the setup. I thought that I would have to look up the SAME code for my location, but the WR120 has a built-in database of all the states and counties, so selecting my county was a snap. In addition to SAME programming, the WR120 has a long list of selectable alert options that you can choose to meet your needs. That list can be downloaded here: https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0531/2856/0817/files/SAME_List_of_Emergencies_Non-Weather_Emergencies.pdf?v=1636648846
The WR120 is powered by a tiny wall-wart transformer that plugs into house power, and the user installs 3 AA batteries to provide back-up power in case the lights go out. The manual does not say how long it will operate on battery power.
It seems to me that if you do not already own a device that will receive NOAA Weather Radio stations, the WR120 would be an excellent choice.
I built the wire version, hung it inside in a corner of my radio shack, and with it attached to either Uniden scanner or my Icom V80 ham handi-talkie, I can hear six NWR stations from my location. This antenna offers a large boost in performance for a modest investment of time and money.
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Jock Elliott, who shares the following guest post:
Perhaps the ultimate radio nerd story . . .
by Jock Elliott (KB2GOM)
Perhaps I am the only guy on planet earth with a “kinda” interest in DXing NOAA weather radio, but there you have it, and this led me down an interesting rabbit hole in the world of radio.
Earlier this year, I found myself in Sodus, NY, in the western part of the state, near the shores of Lake Ontario. I had with me the following: an Icom V80 2-meter handy-talkie with a sharply tuned commercial antenna that works great on my home repeater (146.94) in Troy, NY; a Uniden BC125AT scanner with a Diamond 77 antenna, and a CCrane Skywave SSB. All receive the NOAA weather channels.
In the early morning, I checked www.wunderground.com for weather in the Sodus area. Snow was expected overnight. So I grab the Uniden 125AT, activate the weather scan function, and found that it received NOAA weather radio channels 1, 2, and 3, and the audio sounded great through my headphones. I tried stepping through the weather radio channels on my Icom V80 and found that it received channels 1, 2, and 3, but with just a wee bit of static in the background. I tried switching the antennas between the 125AT and the V80, and there was no appreciable difference.
Now, here’s the interesting part: I tried the same trick on the CCrane Skywave SSB with its telescoping whip fully extended, and it received weather channel 1 just fine with excellent audio through the headphones. But channel 2 was way down in the soup, a hair above “barely audible.” I tried waving the Skywave around, point the whip antenna in different directions and orientations to see if I could improve the signal. I succeeded only in nulling it out. Weather radio channel 3 was not audible at all, but channel 4 was coming in well, and so was channel 7 . . . and the other two radios were not receiving channels 4 and 7 at all.
Frankly, I didn’t know what to make of this. To be clear, I was able to hear that forecast that I needed to hear — for Wayne County, NY — on all three radios. But why would there be such a stark difference between the CCrane Skywave SSB and the other two radios?
At this point, I was really curious what the answer might be.
The V80 and the 125AT “agreed” with each; both were receiving NOAA weather radio channels 1, 2, 3. The CCrane Skywave SSB appeared to be the anomaly, receiving channels 1, 2 (barely), and 4 and 7, which the V80 and 125AT did not receive.
Shortly after publishing Aaron’s post, Nicholas Pospishil commented (on Facebook) that the US pharmacy chain Walgreens has the Midland WR120 on clearance. In fact, his local Walgreens priced the WR120 at $3.50–a phenomenally low price!
I had to investigate this so I stopped by my local Walgreens and searched for the WR120 on the clearance shelf, but there wasn’t one unit to be found. I flagged down the manager at this store–a fantastic guy who’s helped me in the past–and asked if he could check inventory. He discovered two units tucked away and looked up the clearance price. It was $18.99 in their system. Evidently, store managers have a lot of latitude with clearance pricing and he kindly halved that and set the price to $9.99 each for the two remaining units. I felt like this was a fantastic bargain, so I bought both as Christmas gifts.
If you have a Walgreens near you, I would encourage you to stop by and see if they have any WR120s in stock! These units are only available in Walgreens stores–not on their website. Please report back and comment with pricing!
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Aaron Kuhn, who writes:
“Weather radio? I’ll just use my cellphone for alerts.”
If you’ve ever uttered or thought the above words – take heed.
Late last week I awoke at around 12:30 AM to the sound of some incredibly strong winds outdoors. Glancing down at my completely muted phone, I opened up my text messages to reveal a Tornado Warning. In a panic, I threw on some clothes, gathered a dog harness and leash and made my way the pantry closest for shelter.
Then I checked my phone again – and realized that tornado warning was from 30 minutes ago and already expired. Crap. That was too close for comfort. I promptly went on to Amazon and ordered the Midland WR120.
I unboxed and set the radio up yesterday and I’m quite happy with it.
The first thing I suggest doing after initial setup is turning off the button beeps which are incredibly annoying. Past that, I’ve found the radio perfect for my needs of setting it on a window sill and (hopefully) forgetting about it until it alerts me to any nearby danger.
Since SAME Alerts work on a county basis, I was very happy to discover this radio allows you to disable certain kinds of alerts that may not be relevant to you.
By default, the radio doesn’t allow you to turn off 30 some events, including Tornado Warnings among them – this is a good thing in my opinion! However, it is a bit concerning when you first go to setup the radio and realized Tornado Warning is missing in the alert list. The reason for this is because this is one of the 30 some alerts you can’t disable.
Overall I’m happy with the radio, and hoping it’ll never fire off in the middle of the night on me any time soon – but I know it’ll be a lot more reliable than my cellphone prone to being muted.
I view weather radios like smoke alarms now, it’s stupid for you to not have one. I wasn’t expecting Tornadoes in November in Southeastern Pennsylvania, but apparently nature is one to surprise us continuously.
Thank you so much for sharing your story and your WR120 review, Aaron.
I love this quote: “I view weather radios like smoke alarms now, it’s stupid for you to not have one.” I agree completely!
A few weeks ago, there was an alert sent to every phone in the US all at the same time. I received my alert nearly 30 minutes late. Mobile phones and their networks are pretty amazing technology, but they’re not flawless.
We are so lucky to have a robust weather radio broadcasting infrastructure here in the US and Canada. An inexpensive radio like the WR120 will deliver weather alerts reliably and give you a preparedness edge.
And thank you for mentioning the number of events you can edit out of the alert system. No sense in receiving alerts you don’t need.
In addition, some weather alert radios default to receive alerts from counties and regions surrounding your own. I would suggest turning those off–limiting the alert area to your own county–else you could get a lot of alerts that don’t pertain to your location. Using the smoke detector analogy, receiving alerts from surrounding counties is much like putting a smoke detector directly over your stove! You’re just asking for false alarms. 🙂
Thanks again, Aaron, for the important PSA!
Keep in mind as the holiday season approaches: weather radios make for life-saving, affordable gifts.
I’ve had it over 10 years and it’s been a solid performer. It has a long battery backup on 4 AA’s. It also does AM/FM, has alarm out, antenna in, audio out etc.
It’s fairly smart and doesn’t alert me when the Wednesday tests are happening but does light up during the test so it’s easy to see that it’s working and receiving alerts as it should. Getting through the programming menu is a little weird (as it is with most weather radios) but I can usually figure it out with having to hunt down the manual even though I haven’t been in the menu in years.
With the advent of the cell phone, where no one thinks they need a radio anymore for anything, the best deal in weather radios is often found at Goodwill or your local thrift shop. You can often find models with S.A.M.E for $2-3.
Thank you for the recommendation, Grant! I was not familiar with Reecom weather products. I’m especially impressed with the 185 hour backup time from a set of four AA cells! Impressive. I doubt other models can claim that amount of backup power time–a full week.
Even eHam has positive reviews of Reecom dating back to 2006.
Grant, you also make a great point about checking out thrift stores. Many people don’t know what a weather radio is, so thrift stores sell them for $2.00 or $3.00 in their electronics pile. Just make sure you find the matching power supply.
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