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Increase in hazardous weather spurs bills to modernize systems

Dec 21, 2023, 12:18 PM | Updated: 12:52 pm

hazardous weather systems...

(Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

(Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Washington Senator Maria Cantwell introduced two bills this past May to modernize the nation’s weather radio network for hazardous events. Earlier this week, the bi-partisan bills unanimously passed the Senate. The House of Representatives Science Committee has already approved the bills with plans to take them up in the full House early next year.

The overwhelming Senate support of these two bills, entitled the Weather Radio Modernization Act and National Weather Service Communications Improvement Act, is aimed at modernizing the nation’s weather communication and all-hazards weather radio as the nation confronts more frequent and stronger weather events. As this year wraps up, the country has already experienced $25 billion or more weather-related disasters resulting in close to 500 fatalities.

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The National Weather Service, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), operates just over a thousand NOAA Weather Radio stations across the nation, 21 that serve Washington reaching over 95% of the state’s population.

NOAA Weather Radio is an all-hazards warning system, not only providing the latest local weather forecast information, but also weather warnings and non-weather related emergency information 24 hours a day, seven days a week. According to NOAA, more than 400 NOAA Weather Radio station transmitters will need to be replaced in the next five years.

NOAA Weather Radio is a key element of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) providing that first alert of emergency information for disaster events like tornados, flash floods, hazardous material releases and rapidly spreading wildfires. NOAA Weather Radio behaves like a smoke detector, activating when an EAS message is received, even if the power is out with battery backup and includes features for the hearing impaired.

This year alone, NOAA Weather Radio was used to help notify citizens of many emergencies. These emergencies included the recent flooding in Western Washington, the East Palisade, Pennsylvania train derailment, when flash floods drenched parts of Vermont and Pennsylvania, the recent middle-Tennessee tornadoes, hurricanes including Idalia in Florida and Hilary in the Pacific Southwest, rapidly spreading wildfires including the Maui firestorm and several manhunts.

NOAA Weather Radio is a life-saver for the cost of a pair of shoes, and is a part of a suite of public warning systems. Smartphones offer public warnings, but as unfortunately demonstrated during the Maui firestorm, can fail when the power and/or cell phone system goes out. During this tragic event, NOAA Weather Radio and broadcasters remained in service providing vital emergency information.

In Grays Harbor County, a pair of homeowner surveys from a decade ago found 40% of homes had an all-hazards weather radio. When a big earthquake occurred during the wee hours on a January 2018 morning near Kodiak Island in Alaska, EAS was activated for a tsunami watch, giving coastal communities lead time to get ready in case a devastating tsunami was generated. Those with weather radios got that alert message, but those with smartphones did not since the phone system only alerts for tsunami warnings and not tsunami watches.

It is important to have multiple ways to receive public alerts and warnings including NOAA Weather Radio, smartphones, broadcasters, local jurisdiction opt-in alert systems like Alert Seattle, outdoor siren systems and more. Weather radio receivers should be in all homes, businesses, health care facilities, schools, cars, places of worship and more, as a key element in receiving critical and reliable life-saving warning information.

The NOAA Weather Radio Modernization Act would require upgrades to outdated weather radio technology and infrastructure, particularly reliance on copper wire transmissions given its impacts by extreme temperatures and severe weather, and expand radio coverage to rural areas with no current service, reaching closer to 99% of the nation’s population.

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The National Weather Service Communications Improvement Act would enhance their instant messaging system, and implement a modern cloud system providing a faster service for more partners such as the emergency management community and media.

“Gaps in weather radio coverage keep communities in the dark about incoming weather hazards, that’s why I’m proud that these two bipartisan bills that passed the Senate would finally upgrade the National Weather Service warning technology, expand radio alert coverage in rural and tribal communities, and repair weather radio stations across the country,” Senator Cantwell said earlier this week. “It’s critical that we modernize our outdated technology, and I will keep working to get these important bills signed into law.”

More information about NOAA Weather Radio is available on its home page including where to obtain them from retailers or on-line. NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts official warning and forecast information along with warnings from federal, state and local emergency managers, making it America’s official federal warning system.

Follow Ted Buehner, the KIRO FM news meteorologist on Twitter

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Increase in hazardous weather spurs bills to modernize systems