The History of NOAA Weather Radio

The NOAA weather radio service in the United States is impressive in its scale. The National Weather Service (NWS) broadcasts alerts, forecasts and non-weather related hazard information 24 hours a day on over 1020 dedicated high frequency radio stations.(1)  This hasn't always been the case though; the service had humble beginnings.

In 1960, the Weather Bureau began broadcasting marine weather information on two VHF radio stations in Chicago and New York City.  These two stations had previously been used for aviation weather broadcasts but became available for marine service when all aviation broadcasts were moved to a network of L/MF radio stations.(2) The success of this "experiment" led to the expansion of the network. Broadcasts were expanded to serve the general public and the network of stations grew throughout the 1960's and early 1970's. However, capital investment requirements, bureaucracy and a confused procurement process limited the growth of the network and it remained largely confined to coastal areas. In some cases, local governments, businesses and citizens raised the capital required to finance a new radio station.(2,3)

 In October 1970, the United States Weather Bureau was renamed the National Weather Service and was operating 29 VHF-FM weather-radio transmitters within the newly created National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In 1971, the NWS announced a new broadcast capability that could turn on weather radio receivers by means of a tone signal that was transmitted before an alert. By 1974, the NWS's VHF-FM weather-broadcast program was officially called NOAA Weather Radio. At that time it consisted of 66 transmitters nationwide and reached an estimated 44 percent of the U.S. population(2) By the late 1970's, the NOAA weather radio network had grown to over 300 stations.(4) 

Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) had its beginnings in the early 1980s when the National Weather Service began experimenting with using analog tones (in a dual-tone multi-frequency format) to transmit data with radio broadcasts.(2) In 1985, the National Weather Service had progressed to testing digital codes with radio transmissions. These codes would signal radio receivers to activate (un-mute) only when an alert specific to a chosen geographical area (i.e., county) was issued. In 1998, the National Weather Service adopted plans to implement SAME technology nationwide.  In 2003, the U.S. NOAA established a SAME technology standard for weather radio receivers. However, the roll-out moved slowly until 1995 when the U.S. government provided the budget needed to develop the SAME technology across the entire radio network. Nationwide implementation occurred in 1997 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted the SAME standard as part of its new Emergency Alert System.

In 1990, NOAA weather radio expanded its role from just providing weather warnings to become an ''All Hazards" warning system. The system now covers non-weather related events such as natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, forest fires and volcanic activity), industrial dangers (e.g., chemical releases, oil spills, nuclear power plant emergencies), and national emergencies (e.g., terrorist attacks).

In 1997, the National Weather Service moved to a computerized system that enabled the NWS to send out multiple warnings over multiple transmitters simultaneously up to several minutes faster. Prior to that, forecasters manually recorded and transmitted each message.(6) By the end of 2001, the network had grown to over 800 radio stations.  At the start of 2007, the network was comprised of more than 970 transmitters, each of which was linked to one of 123 local NOAA NWS offices.(7,8) As of January, 2014, the NWR network included 1023 stations and covered an estimated 97% of the U.S. population across all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

(Image Caption/Credit: National Weather Service employees in the Brownsville, Texas, Weather Forecast Office broadcast a warning over NOAA Weather Radio during Hurricane Emily in July 2005. Source: NOAA)

References

  1. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): In the News... http://www.nws.noaa.gov/nwr/news.htm
  2. Nelson, W. C. (2002) American Warning Dissemination and NOAA Weather Radio (Master's Thesis - University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
  3. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): NWS Huntsville History http://www.srh.noaa.gov/hun/?n=stationhistory
  4. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): History of NOAA Weather Radio http://www.crh.noaa.gov/dvn/?n=nwrhistory
  5. Tuning In Kupec, R. J. (2008). Tuning in: Weather radios for those most at risk. Journal of Emergency Management. Vol.6, No.4, July/August 2008 
  6. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): Voice Improvement Processor. http://www.nws.noaa.gov/nwr/VIPstatus.htm
  7. NOAA Magazine. NOAA Weather Radio: The Voice ff the National Weather Service (Dec 3, 2001)
  8. NOAA Magazine. NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards: On Alert for All Emergencies (Dec 15, 2006)