NOAA weather radio

The freak tornadoes that swept across Central Florida one week ago, killing 20 people, have reminded me that I want to buy a weather radio — the kind that turns on automatically in the middle of the night when the National Weather Service issues a warning. Here in Racine, we probably won’t see temperatures above freezing for another week, making it a perfect time to do some research before March comes in like a Tasmanian Devil.

First of all, the National Weather Service has details on NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) which, as they point out, is an “All Hazards” network issuing not only weather warnings, but also notices regarding earthquakes, toxic spills, AMBER alerts, and so on. Additionally, depending on your location, you might be able to pick up several NWR signals, which could add up to information overload. To solve this, NWR uses Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME). By entering the SAME code for your county into your radio, you are programming it to filter out alerts from other counties which don’t affect you. Some models of consumer NWR receivers also allow you to further filter specific types of events. I, for one, do not want to be awakened for a frost advisory.

Another thing you want to look for on a weather radio is the Public Alert™ logo. This ensures that the radio meets a number of technical standards set forth by the Consumer Electronics Association.

Outside of customer reviews at Amazon.com, I have not found a lot of reviews for weather radios online, except for a Weather Alert Receivers section at eHam.net. From these sources, two manufacturers seem to stand out: Midland Radio Corporation and Oregon Scientific, with Midland generally rated higher.

Midland offers two popular models: The WR-100C, which is a SAME All-Hazards Public Alert™ radio with alarm clock, and the WR-300, which adds AM & FM radio and a little more programming and memory capacity. As suggested in one description, you may want additional alerts regarding a distant relative or your summer cabin. I just want them because I’m an electronics geek.

One complaint about the WR-300 noted repeatedly is the loud beep the keypad makes when you touch it for any reason. This makes the unit less appealing as a bedside radio for nighttime listening, so whichever one I buy will probably end up sitting on the chest of drawers, not the nightstand.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve learned so far. If you have any additional links, information, or recommendations, please add a comment.

Update, Friday, February 23, 2007:

So I bought the Midland WR-300 (pictured at top) from Amazon.com, and the reviews there are correct. This plastic unit is a very poor AM & FM radio, and it does beep pretty annoyingly when any of its buttons are pressed. Programming it is nowhere near as easy as it could be, but by carefully following the manual, I eventually got it set up with the FIPS codes for Racine County, plus Kenosha, Walworth, and Milwaukee counties to our south, west, and north.

Then I waited, jokingly hoping for any bad thing that would prove my radio was working.

The National Weather Service Milwaukee/Sullivan broadcasts a weekly test Wednesdays at noon unless the weather is actually bad. Right at noon, the yellow LED on my radio lit up and the display began scrolling “REQUIRED WEEKLY TEST.” Wonderful.

Since then, however, we have had a Wind Advisory and now a Winter Storm Watch. The radio had no reaction to either of these, despite my setting alert preferences for these and about 48 other types of events — including tsunami watches and volcano warnings. I emailed the National Weather Service, and was told they don’t broadcast any tones for any of the “long-fuse events”:

We don’t tone-alert long-fuse events like wind advisories or winter storm watches or warnings. There are long lead times associated with these kinds of events, thus we don’t tone-alert them. Same thing for Snow Advisories, Dense Fog Advisories, Freezing Rain advisories. These messages are broadcast on our weather radios … but without the tone-alert.

We tone-alert tornado warnings, severe thunderstorm warnings, flash flood warnings, and their corresponding watches … these are short-fuse events that people have little time to prepare for – the tone-alert gets their attention.

So my new weather radio is capable of receiving and distinguishing between a whole slew of alerts that will never be sent.

Knowing what I know now, I would have instead bought the WR-100C, which has no AM & FM, and less programmability, because you really don’t need it.

Update, Thursday, March 22, 2007:

Wednesday evening, March 21, thunderstorms moved through southeastern Wisconsin. Twice, my WR-300 responded to Severe Thunderstorm Warnings issued by the National Weather Service — once for a warning in Milwaukee County, and once for a warning in Racine County. Both times, the radio sounded a very loud, beeping alarm, followed by NOAA weather radio audio which automatically turned off after a minute or two. The alarm sounding in the bedroom was loud enough to hear downstairs where we were watching TV. I have since changed the alarm to the “low” setting so that it doesn’t cause a heart attack by sounding during our sleep.