If you’re reading this at home, chances are you can look up from the screen and see at least one smoke detector. These life-saving devices are able to alert you to smoke from a fire, letting you get out before it’s too late. Weather radios do the same thing for hazards like tornadoes and floods. Every home, school, and business in the United States needs to be equipped with these critical devices that let you act before hazardous weather strikes.
Weather radios really are the equivalent of smoke detectors for the weather. Just like a smoke detector is your signal that there’s a danger in your house (or someone’s really bad at cooking), when a weather radio’s alarm goes off, it’s your signal that there’s dangerous weather approaching. If your town goes under a tornado warning, for example, these special receivers will sound a loud alarm the second they receive the alert from the National Weather Service.
They’re useful any time of the day no matter what you’re doing, but the best argument for a weather radio is that it will help protect you while you’re asleep. A significant number of tornado fatalities in the United States occur during the night, mostly as a result of people not receiving alerts because they’re in bed. The problem here is that the surprised survivors of nighttime tornadoes often exclaim to local news crews that they had no warning, when in fact there is often plenty of warning—they just had no way to receive it.
NOAA Weather Radio
Transmitting from more than 1,000 antennas across the United States and its territories, each National Weather Service office operates its own radio station that sends out updated weather information on a constant loop, interrupting regular programming when they issue an urgent alert like a severe weather watch or warning. The seven frequencies on which they operate are collectively known as the “weather band,” and devices that pick up these frequencies are widely available at a pretty reasonable cost.
When programmed properly, modern weather radios are able to signal a loud tone and play audio from the radio station in time for the computerized voice to read the alert out loud. This is accomplished through a cool technology called SAME, or Specific Area Messaging Encoding.
You know the screeching tones you hear when they test the Emergency Alert System? That nightmarish whining is actually a set of digitized signals designed to be decoded by special equipment, much like the iconic sound of dial-up internet. Each county in the United States has its own six-digit SAME code—051153, for example—and embedded within this nails-on-a-chalkboard signal is a list of SAME codes that let the equipment know for which counties the alert is in effect.
If you live in Mobile County and the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning for Mobile and Baldwin Counties, the annoying tone that accompanies the tornado warning sent out over the weather radio’s airwaves will include the SAME codes for those two counties. If you program Mobile County’s SAME code into your weather radio, the device will sound the alarm when it receives the signal sent out in the tornado warning.
Most major retailers sell different kinds of weather radios that are equipped with different abilities and features. You have to be careful which kind you purchase—there are still a good number of radios out there that only offer weather band, letting you listen to the feed, but not receive individual alerts for your county.
The most popular line of weather radios is produced by Midland, one of which is pictured on my desk above. The model I have is the Midland WR-100, which is a low-end model I got for my birthday about 10 years ago (that was an awesome present, by the way). The device I have lets you program SAME codes for up to 25 counties, but most people only program two or three: your county, plus one or two upstream where storms usually develop and start chugging toward you, giving you a little more of a heads-up.
The closest equivalent to my radio sells for $20-$25, depending on where you get it, and higher-end models go for $30 to $40. The more expensive weather radios let you limit the amount of alerts you receive—if you’re prone to tornadoes but your neighborhood is high enough that floods don’t affect you, you can program the radio so it doesn’t sound an alarm when flood watches or warnings are issued in your county.
The biggest complaint people have about weather radios is that they go off for “every little thing,” so they disable them or return them to the store. If it’s that much of an issue, spring the extra few bucks and get one of the higher-end devices. Your safety is well worth the money.
Not everyone is sold on the idea of buying a weather radio, though. The two biggest excuses I usually hear are “I have a smartphone,” or even worse, “my town has tornado sirens.”
The Smartphone Problem
The number of weather apps available for smartphones grows by the day, but only a handful of them are worth your trust. Even if you have a smartphone app that you swear by for hazardous weather alerts, having a physical weather radio in your home is a great idea.
You can’t always rely on smartphone apps to alert you in a prompt manner—even with a strong network or wifi signal, there can be a significant delay between the time the alert is issued and the time the app pushes it to your phone. Minutes are everything when it comes to severe weather, and weather radios sound the alarm as soon as the National Weather Service pushes the alert over the airwaves.
A couple of years ago, the FCC rolled out a program called CMAS, which is basically the Emergency Alert System for smartphones. Using your location as determined by cell phone towers, if you’re within the warning polygon for a tornado, severe thunderstorm, or flash flood, a loud alert pops up on your phone and blares until you clear it. Many of us have had the experience of being in a room full blaring smartphones when a warning is pushed out. Even with this capability, it’s still a good idea to have a weather radio nearby in case your cell phone dies, you have no connection, or the alert is delayed.
Many communities in the United States utilize tornado sirens to warn certain residents that severe weather is on its way. Tornado sirens are meant as outdoor warning systems—they are not designed for you to hear them indoors. Even though they’re for use outdoors, many people can still hear them in their homes, and this leads to a “siren mentality” (to borrow a term from James Spann) that everything is okay until you hear the tornado sirens.
As I found out a couple of months ago, many of our dear readers angrily swear by these sirens because they saved their second-cousin’s grandma’s ex-husband’s niece back in the great outbreak of 19whatever. Fine. Just recognize that they’re not designed for you to hear them in your living room, and they’re even less effective if you’re asleep or there’s something that prevents the audio from reaching you (wind blowing the wrong way, television or music drowning out the sound, a loud thunderstorm, the sound of debris raining down on your house).
If you’re hellbent on relying on tornado sirens, at least buy a weather radio as a backup.
Let’s not forget our friends up north. Weather radios that work here in the United States will also work in Canada thanks to cooperation between the National Weather Service and Environment Canada. The latter has assigned SAME codes to counties across the country—and tuned their weather radio signals to the same seven frequencies we use here in the U.S.—allowing Canadians to purchase these devices and use them for severe weather just as we do.
If you decide to buy a weather radio (I encourage it!), here’s the list of SAME codes for every county, parish, and borough in the United States, and here’s the list for counties and forecast regions across Canada. I highly recommend it—the odds of your home getting hit by a tornado or swept away in a flood are lower than it burning down in a fire, but the decision to buy a weather radio could very well save your life one day.