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Weather Radio Alerting

Is Weather Radio the Solution to Public Warning Problems?

(Kendall Post (ALERT Systems Inc, Madison WI, Tel: (608) 441-1509)

A number of people have asked why we need a new national public warning system when we have weather radio.

The appeal of weather radio includes:

The realities and implications of the system are:

Existing public warning systems including weather radio have serious limitations that can be grouped into strategic messaging; accessibility (regardless of time of day, user impairment or location); speed / bandwidth; and miscellaneous categories. These limitations cause emergency managers (EMs) to compensate with door-to-door evacuations and other slow, labor-intensive activities in some cases.

Alert Systems surveyed emergency managers, asking what percentage of their public could they alert for a major threat within 15 minutes. Using all of the systems at their disposal - sirens, EAS, weather radio – EMs with jurisdictions of 5.5 million people estimated 23% at 3AM and perhaps 40% at 10AM.

In the specific case of weather radio, the limitations are:

Strategic Messaging Problem

Virtually all public-warning, interagency notification and response mobilization activities are strategic. They involve people associated by geographic or geopolitical area, and / or organized by function, unit and rank. The SAME method used by weather radio specifies 1/9th county divisions. These fixed, pre-designated areas are too large (particularly in Western states) and inflexible to be used for lost child, hostage and other local situations. SAME areas do not conform to flood plains, rivers, train derailments, or plume clouds. Even with SAME, weather radio warnings disturb many unaffected people, particularly the elderly and infirm, and those who are asleep.

Weather radio overwhelms some people with too much information. People who are visiting or new to an area often don’t know from a verbal description of the affected area whether the warning applies to them. Some people have a difficult time visualizing geographic information conveyed verbally.

Unnecessarily wide-area warnings can actually put and hold people at greater risk. In bio-terrorism, chemical plume cloud, hurricane and other situations, it may be necessary to stage evacuations according to risk to avoid transit system gridlock or to minimize exposure while waiting in outdoor transit system queues. In certain situations, some people need location-specific evacuation route information while others have to be told to sheltering-in-place – close windows, turn-off air-conditioners and stay indoors – for the moment, at least. With weather radio, everyone gets all messages. A percentage will choose the wrong one and evacuate through the plume cloud to the wrong evacuation route before officials can erect barriers.

Unnecessarily wide-area public alerting methods including weather radio warnings have unintended consequences that consume EM energies and delay response efforts. People unaffected by the situation can flood 911 centers with non-essential questions. Sightseers can clog roads impeding response vehicles and evacuations.

Weather radio doesn't give local EM agencies the capability to recall people by neighborhood or provide area-specific situation reports to dislocated populations. Hurricanes and other major events can push people hundreds of miles in many directions.

In off-the-record settings, weather forecasters tell us they are understaffed and ill equipped to handle emergencies beyond their expertise. They aren't trained to issue multi-lingual, all-hazard warnings. They are too busy in some situation like tornadoes to set SAME coding.

SAME does not provide elevation information needed in flood and high rise building situations.

Emergency management involves the mobilization of external resources and other activities as well as public warning. Local agencies cannot economically justify separate systems for each of these activities. Weather radio has no audience – function, unit and rank – addressing mechanisms. As a result, responses to major forest fires that can double every 20 minutes now take 6 hours. The mobilization of building inspectors after the most recent Seattle earthquake took 30 hours. The National Guard needs 1-day to assemble 65% of a unit and 3-days to reach 95%.

The strategic messaging limitations of weather radio actually discourage development and general usage of new information technology tools and methods needed for catastrophic terrorism and other major situations. Only when local EM agencies have sufficient efficiencies in warning and mobilization activities together (now typically 8 to 15 minutes for ‘simple’ threats like tornadoes) is it practical to insert threat and evacuation route modeling and other steps into initial response procedures.

Weather radio does not promote the seamless national emergency information highway needed for maximum responsiveness and effectiveness of emergency response efforts. Public safety depends upon far more than just “last mile” warning systems. Public warnings are just part of larger activities that are inexorably coupled. Emergency management is often defined as a problem of data gathering, information management, knowledge formation and knowledge dissemination under stress. Sensors and pre-analyzed work product (weather, intelligence) must be coupled directly to local EM information technology tools that must, in turn, be coupled directly to warning and mobilization channels. But data output from plume and evacuation route modeling tools don’t correspond to the SAME areas used by weather radio.

Accessibility Problem

Only a fraction of the 4% of U.S. households that do have weather radios enable the tone activation feature. When people are disturbed too many times unnecessarily, they disable the function. Day care centers often turn-off the function during nap time, and then forget to re-enable. Some local emergency managers are reluctant to use weather radio at all for small local area crises. They know that even with SAME, their warnings will disturb many people not directly affected or involve in the event. This will only further exacerbate the ‘warning fatigue’ problem.

The weather radio alert tone does not immediately differentiate the urgency of the situation. A person washing a baby or operating heavy equipment cannot tell whether the tone indicates a test, a pending event or a tornado approaching their back yard. They can’t immediately prioritize their activities. Can they dry the child off first or should they run to hear the weather radio message? Should they abandon the heavy equipment where it is? Can they execute an orderly shut down of a manufacturing plant where an emergency shut down can be enormously expensive?

Most weather radios will operate from batteries but few contain battery re-charger circuitry. People often install batteries when they first get a weather radio but then forget to replace them periodically.

Weather radios are not a good solution for people who are deaf (0.75%) or hard-of-hearing (12%). While newer weather radios have outputs to activate pillow vibrators and other aids, the aids are not universal and inputs are not standardized. And few people want to sleep with multiple vibrators under their pillows or to buy duplicate light blinking systems.

Weather radio is not well suited to people in transit especially those that don't know the area. These people are more likely to be reached through cell [phone] broadcasting, satellite radio, intelligent highway and other emerging civilian alerting channels.

Speed / Bandwidth Problem

Communications bandwidth generally falls during crises. Dial tones and dialing capacity is lost when earthquakes knock enough phones off hook. Major crises trigger civilian overloads of cell phone systems. The ability of issuing public warnings is often inversely proportional to the bandwidth needs of the warning channel. Weather radio is a modest bandwidth system so it requires a modest communications bandwidth to operate.

Weather radio transmission propagate quickly but signal propagation is not always limiting time factor in communicating warnings.

Regional weather centers have Advanced Weather Information Processing system (AWIPs) computers. Operators can draw watch or warning boxes over the Nexrad radar images on their screens. These boxes produce precise latitude / longitude coordinates. But then, forecasters have to translate this geographic information into verbal announcements. They have to convert the location of the box on the computer terminal to Specific Area Messaging codes they manually enter into the SAME coder.

Forecasters can issue tornado and other weather warnings relatively quickly compared to non-weather disasters. To use weather radio, most local agencies have to phone a warning to the regional weather office. Weather personnel then have to set up the SAME decoder and repeat the message on-air. This information relay process invites human errors. When the crisis is dynamic, this process is very cumbersome and problematic.

Earthquakes, ice storms and other disasters can severely disrupt communications lines and limit communications bandwidth. Residents of Spenser, SD received no warnings of a pending tornado when the tornado of June 1, 1998 first destroyed power lines before leveling the city.

Miscellaneous Problems

Local emergency management agencies have all-hazard missions. They need integrated, all-hazard solutions for budget, readiness and other reasons. Because weather radio, even with SAME is not flexible enough for many small area events, they do not view it as a true all-hazard solution.

Local EMs have to deal with all 4 phases of disasters – mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. They have to consider the restoration of ‘last mile’ communications in disaster recovery efforts. Rapid deployment cellular (COWs – Communications on Wheels) and paging systems are readily available. Satellite linked weather radio platforms are not.

Weather radio uses analog modulation methods that limit communications reliability. Virtually all new communications systems use digital modulation for error detection and correction, data compression and other advantages.

Weather radio has self-testing and other technical limitations. No one knew the tone generator of the weather radio transmitter serving Southwestern Georgia and Southeastern Alabama was not working till well into the Alba River floods of 1998.



Tone Alert Radios

Kendall Post (ALERT Systems Inc, Madison WI, Tel: 608-827-7911)

A number of people have asked about the suitability of tone alert radios for public warning purposes.

The appeal of tone alert radio is:

The realities and implications of the system are:

Like other public warning systems, tone alert radio system have major limitations that can be grouped into strategic messaging, accessibility (regardless of time of day, user impairment or location) and miscellaneous categories. These limitations cause emergency managers (EMs) to compensate with door-to-door evacuations and other slow, labor-intensive activities. The specific limitations of tone alert radios are detailed below.

Tone alert radios are variants of weather radios that were specified for use around Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP) sites. These systems have been the subject of a number of lawsuits. People involved in CSEPP exercises have reported people returning their receivers for false triggering and other reasons. Public confidence was very low.

Strategic Messaging Problem

Virtually all public warning, interagency notification and response mobilization activities are strategic. They involve people associated by geographic or geopolitical area, and/or organized by function, unit and rank.

Like weather radios, tone alert radios use fixed, pre-designated areas. These areas are too inflexible to be useful in many situations so local EM agencies do not view them as true all-hazard solutions. They do not conform to the neighborhood of a lost child, flood plains and rivers, or train derailments involving geographic areas with infinitely variable shapes, sizes and locations. Tone alert radios cannot be activated according to elevation for flood and high-rise fire situations.

Geographic flexibility is particularly critical in Weapon-of-Mass-Destruction (WMD) situations. Staging of evacuations may be necessary to prevent transit system gridlock in major urban areas. Gridlock at metro stations, bus stops and other outdoor areas will increase exposure. Road congestion will impede response efforts. Flexibility is critical to making people see messages as “authoritative” so those who are located in non-threatened areas shelter-in-place and those subject to a plume evacuate or act on other recommendations.

While it’s technically feasible to pre-assign thousands of small areas to get sufficient geographic resolution with tone alert radio systems, messages intended for large areas would require considerable communications bandwidth. This precludes usage of paging, cell broadcast and other commercial channels that impose message length limitations. And if EMs have to link to communications channels with nothing more than a slow speed satellite phone link, warning speed will be problematic.

“Wide area” warnings have unintended consequences that consume EM energies and delay response efforts. People unaffected by the situation flood 911 centers with non-essential questions and calls in some cases. Sightseers clog roads impeding response vehicles and evacuations.

Crisis management also involves interagency notification and external resource mobilization of critical infrastructure and reserve personnel as well as public warning. Few EM local agencies can justify separate systems for all of these activities. Tone alert radios have no audience addressing – function, unit, rank, etc. – mechanism to support these activities.

Accessibility Problem

Many local EMs would be reluctant to use tone alert radios for local area crises. From knowledge of weather radios, they know their warnings will disturb many people not directly affected by the event. Because of ‘warning fatigue,’ only a fraction of the households that have weather radios enable the feature. As a result, tone alert radios including weather radios are not a reliable nighttime warning method.

Tone alert radios do not immediately differentiate the urgency of the situation with different tone patterns and/or amplitudes. A person hearing the alert tone while washing a baby or operating heavy equipment cannot know immediately whether the threat is a test, a pending event or a tornado approaching their back yard. They do not know how to prioritize activities. Can they dry the child off first or should they run for the basement? Can they shut-down the heavy equipment in an orderly fashion or should they execute an emergency shut-down that in some manufacturing plants is enormously expensive.

Tone alert radios are not a good solution for people who are deaf (0.75%) or hard-of-hearing (12%). While new weather radios have outputs to activate pillow vibrators and other aids, the aids do not have standardized interfaces. Similar problems arise in noisy factories, shopping malls, and office complexes.

Miscellaneous Problems

Tone alert radio systems use analog communications methods so they are not well suited to cell [phone] broadcasting, satellite radio, intelligent highway and other potential new civilian alerting methods. All of these modern communications systems use digital communications methods to gain error correction, and other benefits that enhance signal reliability.

Public warning systems must be coupled directly to threat modeling and other new computerized emergency management tools to further improve the timeliness of public warnings especially in cases of terrorism. Tone alert radios date from the 1950s and do not couple well to these new tools. They are actually impeding the application of other technology to public safety and homeland security preparedness in some ways.

Tone alert radio systems must emit alert tones to self-test. To minimize ‘warning-fatigue’ issues, testing of the system must be limited.


Weather Radio Alerting

For another of Ken Post's excellent papers: Summary of Public Warning Systemsright arrow click here.


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With best regards,

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Brad Dye
WIRELESS DATA CONSULTANT

P.O. Box 266
Fairfield, IL 62837 USA

Skype: braddye
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Weather Radio Alerting

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