Potentially life-saving info: NOAA Weather Radio 101

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    This is a Public Service Announcement.

    I understand that that the term “SAME-equipped NOAA Weather Radio” might seem like a bunch of jargon, but it’s potentially life-saving jargon.

    So, do you know what a NOAA Weather Radio is? Do you know what SAME is? What’s the point to “Public Alert” certification (something that I didn’t include in the question, because it doesn’t mean too much)?

    We’ll start with the basics.

    NOAA Weather Radio is a nationwide system of transmitters that serve over 95% of the US population. The system broadcasts, among other things, local weather forecasts, severe weather (like thunderstorm and tornado) warnings and watches, Amber alerts, and in the case of extreme emergency, nuclear plant distress information (a la Three Mile Island), and/or statements from the President. With a NOAA Weather Radio, this access to information is completely free. There are no subscription fees or registration forms involved.

    There are seven frequencies that NOAA uses across the country to send Weather Radio data. With modern Weather Radios, all the channels are receiveable. Some older radios may only have three station settings. In this case, what are otherwise known as frequencies 1, 4, and 7 are the three settings. The list of channels and their respective frequencies:

    1 = 162.400 MHz
    2 = 162.425 MHz
    3 = 162.450 MHz
    4 = 162.475 MHz
    5 = 162.500 MHz
    6 = 162.525 MHz
    7 = 162.550 MHz

    There are some radios that have access to these channels. However, with an official NOAA Weather Radio, there are so many added potential benefits, that it’ll take a while to explain.

    With this kind of radio, there are two primary modes: main, and standby. When the radio is turned on, it usually turns onto standby mode automatically. In this mode, a radio doesn’t make any noises, unless the alarm’s tested by the user, or if NOAA sends an alert, either as a test (on Wednesday between 10 AM and noon) or otherwise. Pressing a button (usually marked “Weather”) or flipping a switch puts the radio into main audio mode, which can be used to select the strongest signal in an area, or fine-tune the quality of a signal. Like an FM signal, it’s best to have a radio by a window, unless an external antenna is used — some radios have an external antenna adapter. It’s also good to fine-tune signal reception for best performance.

    You may have a NOAA Weather Radio already and may be thinking, “OK, so that means I have a SAME-compatible unit”. Not so fast: Only some newer NOAA radios have such an enhancement. SAME is a system that sends codes along with weather alerts. These codes describe counties, cities, or municipalities within the official listening area of the station in which the specific alert applies to, and whether it’s an advisory, watch, or warning.

    This is where the user comes in. A SAME-compatible radio should be set by its owner to the county or area that they live in (or commonly visit, if we’re talking about a portable unit). The instructions to do this vary by unit, so it’s best to check the manual. With a properly-prepared radio, when it’s in standby mode, it will only sound an alarm tone if the local NOAA office believes that the coded county is affected by an alert, or if they’re testing the system. If the unit’s not properly set, or if the user doesn’t have a SAME-equipped radio of some kind, it will sound an alert alarm whenever NOAA makes an alert of any kind. This is annoying, and may cause the listener to turn off the unit altogether, defeating the purpose of the radio.

    Every county/municipality with NOAA SAME service (there are some very rural areas that may have no such service) has a SAME code that no other area in the US has. Washington Co., MD, for instance, has a SAME code of 024043. Multiple transmitter sites may serve the same general jurisdiction. For instance, both Frostburg and Hagerstown, MD serve SAME codes for Washington Co. In that or any similar case, the user doesn’t need to choose between one transmitter or another simply to take advantage of a certain SAME code, as they all will send the exact same codes and info with an alert. In addition, a user only needs to code a radio by county/area. The radio will automatically deduce the difference between an advisory, watch, or warning, when such messages are sent.

    Some counties, because they’re so large, may have multiple codes. These counties have codes that don’t start with the number 0.

    There are some areas that would, under conventional wisdom, have one code, but actually have another. These usually occur with cities and municipalities that don’t fall under the same police/school/etc. jurisdiction of the county. For instance, Frederick County, VA has a SAME code of 051069, while the city of Winchester, which the county surrounds, has its own code of 051840. So check with NOAA for similar local discrepencies when programming a unit.

    Most, if not all, SAME-equipped radios have space to set multiple codes. My Weather Radio has space for two codes, so I could set the first one for my region, and the second for a relative in a nearby county (take note, grasshoppers). Most modern radios have room for many more codes. I even read about a radio with room for 25 codes. I don’t know who could take advantage of that kind of space except for storm chasers.

    One final note about SAME: The most powerful signal in your area may NOT be equipped to handle SAME for your region. For example, in Garrett Co., MD, only the Frostburg, MD and Backbone Mtn. (no, not Brokeback Mtn.), WV sites send Garrett Co. SAME signals, even though the Greggs Knob, WV transmitter provides much better service to the western part of the county than either of the other transmitters. This situaton doesn’t occur with all areas, but it’s still good to check NOAA’s coverage maps, and especially their online SAME database, for the best SAME-enabled signal in your area. This info is available online at the links just given. More SAME info is available here. NOAA also has a national SAME telephone database at 1-888-NWS-SAME.

    So, what’s the big deal about “Public Alert” certification? It doesn’t add much value to most. It’s an extention to SAME encoding, and basically means that the Consumer Electronics Association, in collaboration with the US government, has personally inspected and verified that the radio can properly receive all 72 current, and any future, types of alerts that NOAA might send, even to those that are hearing impaired. This list includes alerts for not just the usual suspects, like “Severe Thunderstorm Watch”, “Tornado Warning”, and “Hurricane Warning”, but also things like “Boil Water Warning”, “Tsunami Watch”, “Law Enforcement Warning”, and “Iceberg Warning”. Naturally, some radios allow users to turn off sounding an alarm over certain types of alerts. You can read a more comprehensive explanation of what the “Public Alert” certification means here.

    Where can someone buy a NOAA Weather Radio? The National Weather Service has a page which includes links to mainpages of various manufacturers. From there, if someone knows where to look, it should take one or two clicks at most to get to each retailer’s list of radios. It seems that most manufacturers have inferior products. Looking at Radio Shack’s site (their site includes reveiws of all the Weather Radios that they sell), it looks like all their radios have some turkeys (or perhaps some weren’t coded properly, even if each complaining user believes otherwise? Or did they not have a clean enough signal?). I suggest using the Internet to find user opinions on all radios before making a purchase.

    (A personal note: This radio, and its John Deere-branded counterpart, don’t interest me, because the portable unit doesn’t take alkaline batteries. I hope this radio (or maybe this radio or this one?) is a better portable radio, even though it doesn’t have as many features. I also hope it has a powerful tuner.)

    Finally, it may be best to buy multiple radios: One for each bedside (there’s at least one AM/FM/SAME unit available, and there can always be two radios by the bed), and one within earshot of the majority of living space. Use the house’s natural acoustics to amplify the sound across multiple rooms, if possible. A SAME-equipped radio should have adjustible alert siren and volume controls, as well as tools to test if the siren volume is loud or soft enough, so it can be assured that multiple rooms can hear the alarm and the alert at hand, even if nobody’s near the radio.


    We live in tornado alley, so we have a SAME equipped weather radio. Got it from Radio Smack. Had a different one first, but took it back and got the next up model. Can’t remember if it was something actually wrong with the first one or if it just didn’t do something we wanted it to do. The model we have now has worked just fine for the 6 years we’ve had it.


    If it can’t predict earthquakes i don’t think it’ll do much good in WY. Of course, if we get a big one Yellowstone will blow and everyone will be screwed anyway….

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