In March, a group of massive tornadoes struck communities around Des Moines, Iowa. Seven people were killed, including two children under 5. The crisis received attention not only due to its human cost, but also because of delays in emergency wireless communications: Thanks to a broken fiber optic cable at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Weather Service offices, wireless emergency transmissions were switched to an auxiliary satellite system, which all NWS offices use. Overloaded with extreme weather messages from elsewhere in the Midwest, the satellite messaging system found itself backed up just as the Iowa tornadoes reached their peak. This caused anywhere from a two- to nine-minute delay in tornado warning messages—and may have significantly reduced warning time at a moment when seconds count. The issue lasted for several hours as the deadly tornadoes ripped through the state.
NOAA Weather Radio, on the other hand, continued broadcasting effectively during the crisis. According to Bruce Jones, a weather radio expert and meteorologist with Midland Radio Corporation, “because the NWR broadcast comes direct from the National Weather Service local forecast office, those NOAA Weather Radio alerts and warnings were unimpeded and reached folks immediately.”
Often referred to as the “voice” of the National Weather Service, NOAA Weather Radio is a 24/7 public service that broadcasts weather information from more than 1,000 stations across the United States and many of its territories. And while Des Moines was a great success story for NOAA Weather Radio, the service faces mounting issues with aging technology and infrastructure, raising concerns over whether it will be able to continue protecting communities facing extreme weather.
Heard across several frequencies outside of the AM and FM bands, the NOAA Weather Radio system is the only radio service operated by the federal government. Federally run weather radio was first created in the 1950s, when the precursor to the NWS, the U.S. Weather Bureau, experimented with a pair of stations transmitting weather information for aviation and later, marine activities. Following the 1974 “super outbreak” of tornadoes across 13 states, the White House issued a proclamation that NOAA Weather Radio was the government’s official emergency radio communications system. The service was gradually expanded, and since then, NOAA Weather Radio has come to cover 95 percent of U.S. territory. Its scope has also widened, growing to include natural disasters, nuclear attacks, and local weather coverage programmed into transmitters by NWS offices. Listeners in range of transmitters with the proper equipment—typically, a specialized weather radio—will be able to hear critical broadcasts. But if a transmitter goes out, those important communications go silent.
In parts of the United States that frequently face natural disasters, NOAA Weather Radio has proven to be an essential service for emergency communications. Radio is especially important when weather turns deadly. Following a 1997 tornado in Michigan, specialized NOAA radios were installed “in every school, hospital, and nursing care facility in [Wayne] County, for a total of 860 radios.” Eleven years later, the city of Madison, Wisconsin, offered weather radios to residents and quickly sold out of around 4,500 devices. Meteorologists reiterate the importance of weather radio communications to stay informed in case of TV, cell, or electrical outages. Emergency preparedness kits will often include weather radios for the same reason.
Referring to the Des Moines incident, Jones describes weather radio as the “gold standard” of emergency communications, thanks to its reliability when other communication methods fail. “It’s coming directly from the source, the National Weather Service. … From there it immediately goes to NOAA Weather Radio,” he said. In addition to NWS information, NOAA Weather Radio also broadcasts other government-run warnings. That primary information, as it goes downstream from the official source, later informs additional alerts, like the FCC’s Emergency Alert System, phone app notifications, and wireless alerts. “It’s what kicks off the entire American alerting system,” Jones said.
While NOAA Weather Radio has historically been an important, consistent, and life-saving means of emergency communication, it may not be for long. Outdated technology and failed attempts at modernization are threatening the NOAA Weather Radio system and resulting in extended outages for locations at risk. And as the climate crisis intensifies, this important technology is often vulnerable to the weather about which it’s meant to inform.
Interviews with NWS employees about outages reveal many local technical problems that take out communications, sometimes for weeks or months. For example, a tower located in Artesia, New Mexico, has been down since January because of a power issue with the transmitter. When reached for comment, some employees described an old system reliant on phone wires that connect the offices that issue weather information with the transmitters that broadcast it. Kevin Deitsch, a warning coordination meteorologist at the NWS in St. Louis, explained via email that the severing of these telephone lines is what frequently causes NOAA Weather Radio to go down. “The NWR technology began in the 1950s, with nationwide rollout completed in the late 1960s. Therefore, the technology is all based on physical landline telephone wires,” he wrote.
Extreme weather itself often disables these delicate copper phone lines. According to Ryan Aylward, a warning coordination meteorologist at the NWS office in Eureka, California, in 2017 a wildfire burned communications lines and led to an extended outage in nearby Ukiah. This year, power outages during thunderstorms in Shreveport, Louisiana, caused a breakdown in NOAA Weather Radio service—that’s to say, the service was taken out by the very extreme weather it was meant to report. And during Hurricane Maria in 2017, weather radio service for the Virgin Islands was knocked out. It would remain down for four years, until the NOAA was finally able to construct a replacement tower.
David J. Nicosia, meteorologist-in-charge at the NWS in Binghamton, New York, told me via email that during a 2022 outage in his area, a failed piece of electrical equipment knocked out service. He also described systems that have started to show their age: “Some of the antennas and transmission line from the transmitter to antenna are over 20 years old. The transmitters range in age from the early 2000s,” he wrote.
According to Pilar Trevino, electronic systems analyst at the NWS in West Paducah, Kentucky, the transmitter at his location was installed in March 2001. In previous reporting from Freight Waves, Jones said NWS transmitters were 15 to 20 years old, on average. Though many are still in working order decades after installation, some transmitters and other radio equipment need to be replaced. And while NOAA service may work well in some places under some circumstances (remember the Des Moines tornado crisis), stories of breakdowns during extreme weather could be an alarming signal of what’s to come.
A lack of system updates has doubled the risks to NOAA Weather Radio’s reliability. According to Jones, the last major attempt to fix the weather radio infrastructure occurred with the Weather Radio Improvement Project, proposed around 2007. “It gave money to create multiple ways of communicating with a transmitter, so the NWS didn’t have to rely on a single copper wire going from the office to the tower,” Jones said.
According to a Department of Commerce document, WRIP was intended to create “integrated high-availability communication network architecture” between transmitters and weather offices. This integration, which was supposed to have happened from fiscal years 2009 to 2012, would have compiled weather data and alerts through a unified system based in NOAA’s network and disseminated them via a combination of terrestrial and satellite communication.
But this program never saw the light of day. In a winding snafu that was investigated by Congress, fund mismanagement at NOAA resulted in money earmarked for WRIP to be spent on the agency’s Local Warnings and Forecasts budget, rather than weather radio upgrades. Later, the LWF’s originally earmarked funds were used to cover budget shortfalls for the National Weather Service’s base operations. Susan Buchanan, director of public affairs with the NWS, declined to comment and deferred to congressional transcripts on the matter.
According to Jones, the efforts to broadly fix NOAA Weather Radio were dropped following the WRIP misappropriations scandal. Later, in 2015, the NOAA and NWS issued a request for information to find contractors able to participate in upgrades to the weather radio system, but were clear that the request did not necessarily mean they were soliciting business to implement upgrades.
Some of the major systemic updates to the NOAA Weather Radio system have involved changing the voice delivering announcements. One improvement was in the 1990s, when a “console replacement system” introduced a widely-panned computerized voice nicknamed “Paul” instead of tape-recorded messages spoken by NWS employees. In 2002, Paul was himself replaced by several other voices: in English, Donna, Craig, and Tom, and in Spanish, Javier. Finally, in 2016, a new and improved “Paul” was introduced for English broadcasts, and “Violetta” for Spanish. New Paul remains the primary announcer for NOAA Weather Radio today.
According to Buchanan, between 2006 and 2014, the NWS also moved from vacuum tube-based transmitters to more advanced solid state ones. Buchanan noted the NWS is continuing its move away from other analog, land-based technology as opportunities present themselves.
Recent congressional action, however, has given new life to the possibility of systemic weather radio modernization. Rep. Stephanie Bice, a Republican from Oklahoma, has proposed the NOAA Weather Radio Modernization Act of 2021, which passed in the House of Representatives in May but has yet to pass in the Senate. From Oklahoma, Bice was well aware of the need for consistent weather communications during natural disasters like tornadoes, which affect her constituents.
The bill would authorize $20 million to expand coverage to the remaining 5 percent of the country without access to NOAA Weather Radio communications, as well as $40 million to modernize its hardware and software, including upgrading communication from copper wires to Internet services. According to Wesley Harkins, a representative from Bice’s office, “this paves the way for future development and provides failsafe options, so NWR is never down for an extended period of time.”
Bice’s office also highlighted that operations costs for NOAA Weather Radio have increased as the system has gotten older, and that increasingly outmoded technology is putting people at risk. “Copper wires use technology dating back to the mid-19th century and corrode without proper upkeep,” Harkins wrote in an email.
The NWS itself acknowledges the benefits of this legislation. Maureen O’Leary, deputy director of public affairs at the NOAA, told me via email that improvements would include “expanding NWR coverage to rural and underserved communities, national parks, and recreation areas.”
According to Jones, the legislation is “meant to put this modernization back into action, like it should have been done 10 or 15 years ago.” Even as technology has progressed, NOAA Weather Radio is a mainstay of the multilayered American alert system. And in emergencies, survival often depends on having a plan B—or C. “Fifteen years ago when the cellphone came out, people said ‘You may as well pull the plug on NOAA Weather Radio,’” Jones said. “But you can’t rely on just one single thing. Everyone needs multiple, redundant ways of getting alerts.”