Weather radios can be small portable radios, or larger home units. There are dedicated weather radios, dual-purpose AM/FM/weather radios, and weather radios built into other devices (police scanners, walkie-talkies, multi-function emergency radios).
Dedicated radios cost from $20 to $50 and up. Brands include Sangean, First Alert, Oregon Scientific, Eton, Reecom and Midland. Some of the information in this article is based on user reviews on the Amazon.com website.
How Weather Radios Work: Alerts and SAME
The most basic function of a weather radio is to receive weather forecasts on any of the seven NOAA frequencies. This means working like a normal radio to receive voice broadcasts. The frequencies can be manually chosen to get the strongest signal. Some radios have an auto-scan feature to automatically detect the strongest signal. Radios with only this function are cheap and easy to use. Pocket radios for traveling and camping, are often of this type.
More advanced are radios that can be put on standby until an NOAA alert is received. There’s no need to listen to the radio the whole day. The radio will only sound when there’s danger. This is an improvement, but needs a constant supply of electricity. Some pocket radios do have this feature but the batteries will run out if the radio is kept on standby for too long. It is more practical in home desktop or console units, which are powered from mains AC electricity.
The problem with alerts is that many broadcasts are for other areas, perhaps over 50 miles away. This generates a lot of false alarms, eventually causing users to ignore or disable the alert. The answer to this is SAME (Specific Alert Message Encoding). NOAA alerts are now encoded with information on:
- The county the alert is meant for. Each county has a six-digit code. A list of SAME codes is available on the NOAA website.
- The severity (Advisory, Watch, Warning) and type of alert (flood, tornado, hurricane, thunderstorm etc).
SAME weather radios allow users to enter a few county codes of interest (usually the home and surrounding counties). This filters out alerts for areas that are far away.
More advanced SAME radios also allow certain types of alerts to be selectively disabled. For example, someone living on a hill wouldn’t want to be woken up at 3am because of a flood alert, even if it was for his county. Most radios do not allow serious alerts such as tornado warnings, to be disabled. Different radios differ in which of the less serious alerts, they do allow to be disabled. It’s good to check which can be disabled, to ensure that this meets the user’s requirements.
Public Alert and All-hazards Radios
Public Alert (TM) radios are weather radios that meet the Public Alert Standard. Mandatory requirements include SAME support and battery backup.
All weather radios are automatically all-hazards radios. This is because Amber alerts, chemical releases, forest fires, earthquakes etc; are also reported on the NOAA weather channels.
How to Choose a Home Weather Radio
Dedicated weather radios are usually a better choice than a combined multi-function device. They can be left on all time and then ignored, like a smoke detector. They will quietly monitor the weather channel until an alert is issued. They will then reliably set off an alarm.
For safety equipment such as a weather radio, reliability is important. The problem with multi-function devices is that they might not be switched on all the time. Even if on, some will not monitor the weather channel if other functions are used.
The bare basics of a dependable weather radio are:
- Battery backup, so that the radio still functions if there is an electrical power cut. Many use AA batteries. Some have a switch for alkaline and rechargeable NiMH batteries, recharging the NiMH batteries when there is power.
- An alarm or siren that can be heard all over the house, and is loud enough to wake people from sleep.
- SAME support, to avoid false alarms that will cause users to disable the alarm.
- Text display of the alert message. Many radios will store more than one message, allowing users to see previous messages.
Useful features are:
- Separate LED lights to indicate when an Advisory, Watch or Warning has been issued.
- Display of remaining time for the validity of the warning, so that people know when the danger is over.
- One-touch playback of the latest weather report.
- Strobe-light alarm, for those who are hearing-impaired. Midland sells a separate plug-in strobe for their weather radios.
- Adjustable volume for the alarm. Care must be taken to ensure that the volume hasn’t been accidentally bumped to a lower volume.
- Self-test. A test signal is generated to see if the alarm is working.
- Socket for external antenna.
- Manual muting of the siren after the alert has been issued. Some radios continue to sound the siren for a fixed number of minutes, and cannot be silenced. It’s convenient to be able to temporarily switch off the siren, after everyone in the house has been alerted.
A test alert is broadcast every week. Different behaviors are possible, depending on the radio:
- Never sound the siren, only display a text message. This is less disruptive, but doesn’t test the siren.
- Always sound the siren, just like for a real alert. This is safer as it ensures that the siren is working, however it can be annoying.
Some radios allow the user to select any one of the above behaviors. Others leave the user with no choice. Some will issue a text message alert if no test signal is received for more than a week.
The Best Weather Radio
Every house should have a weather radio. Few areas are totally immune from severe weather, natural disasters, industrial accidents, or deliberate attacks. A dedicated battery-backed-up home unit is the best way to ensure that reliable warnings are received. For camping or occasional travel, a simple (non SAME) pocket weather radio is sufficient as long as it is manually checked every few hours.
The Weather Channel website offers email and SMS alerts for severe weather and other conditions. This can be used as a backup for a weather radio. Current weather alerts can also be read directly from the website.