A House bill in committee since late September proposes to substantially upgrade the nation’s official severe weather alert system, which is aging and full of gaps.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio Modernization Act of 2021 would improve coverage of severe weather alerts and add a backup system for damaged transmitters.
“Nothing goes off on your cellphone, nothing goes off on your outdoor sirens, nothing goes off anywhere until NOAA Weather Radio is activated,” Bruce Jones, a meteorologist with Midland Radio Corp., told FreightWaves. “It’s the official federal alerting system that saves lives and protects property. That’s why it has to be maintained and taken care of and expanded.”
When all else fails — cellphone towers, electricity, etc. — a NOAA Weather Radio, which can run on backup batteries, will always work. The NOAA Weather Radio Network (WRN) is known as “the voice of the National Weather Service.”
Based in Kansas City, Missouri, Midland is a leading manufacturer of NOAA Weather Radios, which reach 95% of the U.S. population with their alerts. The bill offers a bipartisan boost for the network, which also issues Amber Alerts, warnings of major hazardous materials spills and other non-weather-related emergencies.
The bill wouldn’t require an increase in taxes or federal spending. It simply asks NOAA to reallocate money already in its budget — $20 million for maintenance, as well as $40 million for modernizations to bring the system into the 21st century.
Bice told FreightWaves that she has a NOAA Weather Radio at home. She grew up in Oklahoma, in the heart of Tornado Alley, and is all too familiar with the threat severe storms pose to truckers.
“We’ve had tornado outbreaks that have crossed major highways, including I-35 and I-44. So alerting truckers of impending weather, I think, is incredibly important,” Bice said.
Bice is a member of the Space, Science and Technology Committee, which is reviewing the bill, and is also the committee where conversations began about upgrading the WRN.
Jonathan Hunter, weather and safety review group manager at Covenant Logistics, told FreightWaves he’s in favor of the bill.
“If this act is able to update that infrastructure and make it possible to listen to these broadcasts through the internet and create the backup systems that are needed, it’s very helpful to our drivers,” Hunter said.
Hunter added that all Covenant trucks have in-dash NOAA Weather Radios to make sure drivers receive alerts no matter where they are, even if cell service is weak.
The WRN consists of 1,033 transmitters and, according to Jones, their average age is 15 to 20 years. They don’t all necessarily have to be replaced, but they won’t last forever and need routine maintenance.
The bill would maintain support for the existing WRN and enhance its ability to amplify non-weather emergency messages. The bill, if passed, also would allow for fast-tracking repairs of transmitters and antennas.
“So if a transmitter is knocked off the air by lightning [for example], it would only take a day or so to get it back on the air. Currently, transmitters can be off the air for weeks before they’re repaired,” Jones said.
Right now, old-school copper phone lines connect each NWS weather forecast office (WFO) with its respective transmission towers. These lines, which can be accidentally cut by construction or excavation equipment, would be replaced by microwave signals (like radio and television stations use) or internet feeds.
Each of the 122 WFOs operates 10 to 15 WRN transmitters. However, if a WFO goes offline for any reason, nobody in range of its transmitters will receive alerts. This happened after Hurricane Maria struck the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2017, taking four years to get them back on the air. The bill supports the addition of a satellite backup system that would solve this problem.
“For example, if the weather forecast office in Shreveport, Louisiana, gets hit by a tornado, the weather forecast office in Boston, Massachusetts [or somewhere else] could take over control of those NOAA Weather Radio transmitters and continue to run them,” Jones explained.
Some of the allocated funds would also support partial county alerting to be programmed. Right now, NWS alerts cover entire counties even though the severe storm may only impact parts of those counties. Under partial country alerting, for example, if there’s a tornado heading toward the southeastern corner of a county, the warning would only be sent to that area.
The NWS would work with emergency managers to subdivide counties based on rivers, floodplains, ridgelines, etc. This would be especially helpful in high-population areas, and Jones said it’s currently testing well in Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas.
The bill would also allow for the construction of transmitters that would reach the 5% of the country not connected to the WRN, approximately 16 million people. These are mainly rural communities and some remote areas in national parks.
Long time coming
Jones said he’s been advocating for these changes for the past five years and it took three years to discuss, draft and introduce the bill. The proposed legislation was drafted using input from dozens of NWS staff members. Because the bill has bipartisan support, Jones thinks there’s a very good chance it will pass.
“I urge every American to contact their representatives in Washington and voice support for the bill and ‘the voice of the National Weather Service.’ The next life it saves could be yours,” Jones warned.
Bice hopes the bill will go to the floor by late November, then to the Senate. She would like to see it pass by early spring 2022. It could take a few years to complete all the upgrades.
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