The US National Weather Service considers changing warning language.

Developments in the US National Weather Service might influence the way weather warnings are issued in Australia. In any event discussion about the use of language can inform Australia’s hazard managers as they seek to improve warnings.

The US National Weather service is considering changing it’s warnings, in line with its aim to ensure more recognition for impact to be described when issuing forecasts.

This approach was taken by Australia’s bushfire and emergency experts in creating the National Bushfire Warning Framework. It’s interesting to consider how it might be included in weather warnings.

The NWS is gathering opinions from the public and weather product users to help guide the process, and in a promising move their approach highlights it’s relationship with the public – and its belief that people are capable of receiving and processing large amounts of data to make their own decisions.

It’s trialling a new system side by side with the present system, despite the obvious concern about confusion.

In its own words, it says it wants to have “a conversation” with users:

“In support of our Weather-Ready Nation initiative, NWS wants to start a conversation on how we might simplify and clarify our products. For this demonstration, we are proposing an alternative way to express headlines within our hazard messages, with winter hazard messages as a focus. If you have other ideas for simplifying and clarifying these messages, we want to hear them.”

The details are here:

The language used by the NWS in the US is very close to the language used in Australia. The principal enhancements are to headlines:

For all current, official winter weather hazard messages that lead with the phrase:

“THE NWS HAS ISSUED A _____ WATCH” it will say: “THE NWS FORECASTS THE POTENTIAL FOR ____” with the hazard type (snow, ice, wind, etc.), level of certainty, timing and expected impact(s) clearly stated in the blank space.

For all official winter weather hazard messages which lead with the phrase: “THE NWS HAS ISSUED A(N) ______ ADVISORY” it will say instead: “THE NWS ADVISES CAUTION FOR ____”  and for messages which lead with the phrase: “THE NWS HAS ISSUED A(N)______ WARNING” it will change to: “THE NWS HAS ISSUED A WARNING FOR A DANGEROUS______”

“We retain the term “Warning” for the demonstration because of its direct connection to protection of life and property, but this alternative approach would eliminate the individual hazard products within the Warning category.”

The NWS  will receive feedback early this year, and is proposing that it will revisit its approach to water and wind warnings if this proposal receives public endorsement.



US National Weather Service Partnerships and warnings

The National Weather Service in the US has a symbiotic working relationship with the broadcast media, which far surpasses anything in Australia.

Although The ABC has wonderful and often personal relationships with the Bureau of Meteorology, the US NWS systemises the process. (Mind you the idea that the ABC conducts hourly interviews with BoM staff in most of Australia was something that really excited the NWS people I spoke too – but that’s an aside).

The central pillar behind the success of the NWS relationship is the Integrated Warning Team, but there are other very important elements.

Warnings officers are stationed in all regional forecasting centres who have an emergency and community education role

Direct access between warnings officers, forecasters and broadcasters. A very important component of this approach is NWSchat – the “real-time interactive communications system” which would be well worth considering in Australia for all emergency agencies and the Bureau of Meteorology.

It allows direct communications with experts “off line” seeking more information, more urgency, raising questions, and providing feedback.

To quote the NWSchat home page:

“NWS partners can use NWSChat as an efficient means of seeking clarifications and enhancements to the communication stream originating from the NWS during a fast-paced significant weather or hydrologic event. NWSChat is an Instant Messaging program used by NWS operational personnel to share critical warning decision expertise and other types of significant weather information essential to the NWS’s mission of saving lives and property.

Mike Hudson, the warning specialist at Kansas City, Missouri, says it helps to ensure that the messages being broadcast over multiple platforms is consistent: “If people receive more than one message at a time it can lead to paralysis.

“Inconsistent messaging leads people to “shop” for information, taking up valuable time to see if other radio and TV stations are carrying the same message.”

Real time chatroom content between the duty warnings forecaster and all media (or between emergency agency duty officers and the warnings media ) would enhance understanding at critical times.

NWSchat is linked directly to the local warnings officers. The use of Instant Messaging (IM) and chatrooms have proved to be valuable for this type of communication internally at The ABC and in many businesses, but to open them to various partners, like the NWS has done, is a bold step, which reflects the relationship between broadcasters and the NWS. The technical details are online and the following information is all provided by their site,

NWSchat is maintained by the National Weather Service and is situated behind a firewall. NWSChat is comprised of a pair of servers configured in a resilient primary/backup configuration, and receives auto-updates for all operating system patches and bug-fixes. The systems are scanned quarterly to identify and correct IT security vulnerabilities as required by NOAA IT Computer Security policy.

Individual user accounts are required for NWSChat; shared or group accounts are disallowed. A standardized account naming syntax is also enforced for manageability.

To register with NWSChat, users must submit an online form. Once submitted, the selected primary office receives an email of the request, and will approve or deny authorization for each user. Once approved, the requesting user is notified via email and then must complete online training for NWSChat.

Most multi-user chatrooms on NWSChat are open to NWS partners once they are authorized by the NWS. However, certain rooms are restricted for “members-only” access. This is necessary to secure information in specific chatrooms intended for certain partners only. For example, some information may be required by emergency managers that is not appropriate for media partners due to the sensitivity of and timeliness of emergency operations.

As a result, a members-only chatroom would be provided limiting access to NWS and authorized emergency managers exclusively, for a given location. In order to participate in NWSChat, you must meet at least one of the following standards:

• Be a member of the emergency management (EM) community: Members of the EM community includes public safety officials who serve as employees or contract agents of a government agency at the federal, state, local, or tribal level and are charged with protecting the public from hazards that are influenced by weather or weather-related events. Other members of this community include: safety and emergency personnel, from universities or other large entities with large populations, whose roles are functionally equivalent to the public safety officials described above, and Amateur Radio Emergency Services.

• Be a government partner of a NWS office: This includes Government partners who have missions that require close coordination with the NWS. Government partners include (but are not limited to) the FAA, and water and land management officials.

• Be a member of the electronic media: Members of the electronic media are parties, and contract agents of parties who:  Have a need to actively participate in discussions with NWS Forecast Offices on imminent weather or other hazards, and Operate systems that routinely and rapidly relay weather and water watches, advisories, warnings and forecast information to a significant part of the population served by an NWS office; via electronic information distribution such as radio, television, internet, cellular, and other wireless means. Note: Individuals, companies, or other entities involved in ‘chasing’ weather events and posting or streaming video or pictures of the event, but do not otherwise have a need to communicate with NWS do not meet the qualifications for this Service.


editors note: Typograp[hical erroir updated Dece,mber 3, 2012: Third para should read:

It allows direct communications with experts “off line” seeking more information, more urgency, raising questions, and providing feedback.


Broadcast community partnerships in the US

The media and broadcast in the US are highly valued partners in disseminating information and warnings about all hazards in a way that isn’t apparent in Australia.

There are three elements on which the partnerships are based which serve the US well – legislation, obligation and co-operation. All three are, to some extent, missing from the landscape in Australia.


The US set up CONtrol of ELectromagnetic RADiation, or CONELRAD (1951 – 1963), and the Emergency Broadcast System, or EBS (1963 – 1997) to deal with the threat posed by the Cold War. Legislation was passed which compelled radio stations to participate in the program at their own cost, and to ensure they could carry all Presidential level warnings and addresses.

“It is a condition of their licence agreement now that TV and radio broadcast companies serve the public interest,” says Manny Centeno, the Program Manager of the Integrated Public Alert and Warnings system with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “They are using public airwaves, the public owns them.”

Jim Bremer, the program director at KQMS Newstalk Radio backs up the observation, ”We’re licensed to serve the public.”

Jim Bremer, EP at KQMS Reading

In 1997, the EBS modernised into the Emergency Alert System, or EAS, and in 2006 President Bush issued Executive Order 13047, which required that an Integrated Public Alert and Warning System be built. The legislation was changed to enable the system to be used by state and county agencies to alert their community to potential hazards. In all counties now the system is used frequently to alert the community to weather hazards, and “AMBER alerts“ – notifications of recent child abductions.

 The Commercial Mobile Alert System is one of several systems within IPAWS. The Commercial Mobile Service Providers’ decision to broadcast alerts and warnings is voluntary. “We have 400 telecommunications providers in the US, and within a few months of the process being set up, we already have over 100 providers who’ve opted in,” said Manny Centeno.”

The cost to send these alerts: “Nothing at all, they do it voluntarily.”

Phone companies will receive alerts via the IPAWS Open Platform for Emergency Networks, or IPAWS-OPEN, and then broadcast them to the public in areas which have been geo-targeted by emergency alerting authorities.

To ensure the process is smooth, the Federal Communications Commission and FEMA set standards and protocols, developed a common operating system for emergency agencies and provide training. The FCC requires a monthly test of the system.

In addition, the National Weather Service was provided with funding to set up its own radio network – the National Weather Radio. With more than 1100 transmitters, it’s a robust and comprehensive system, which has come to be relied upon by a sizeable proportion of the US community.


Legislation alone cannot compel organisations to ensure that all aspects of their content meet the requirements of Federal Government or the needs of their communities. Only the “Presidential Address” is obligatory, all other warning content is carried voluntarily. But the competitive nature of the private sector has ensured that all participants feel obliged to participate. The telecommunications companies created demand for phone handsets that are warning compatible.

The radio and TV stations know that in an emergency their competitors will be broadcasting warnings, and they can’t afford to ignore the possible impact on their audience reach.

TV stations play the most important role, with weather presenters being the go-to people when an emergency begins. TV watching seems to be universal. Homes, clubs, bars, restaurants, schools, public gathering places like airports all seem to have TV networks switched on 24/7.

Jim Bremer from KQMS estimates that his company spends $20,000 on the hardware to receive EAS content, and there are numerous stations in his comparatively small company.


“Tremendous private sector involvement is the key to the success of CMAS and EAS,” says Wade Witmer, FEMA’s Deputy Director of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.

There is no doubt that emergency managers are grateful for the support they are receiving from broadcasters.

But to ensure the process is integrated, there has to be high level and frequent co-operation. FEMA and the Federal Communication Commission have a monthly meeting with national broadcasters and telecommunications companies, to ensure the systems remain technically robust and to create a standard for sharing of information between emergency agencies and the disseminators.

“You have to engage the broadcasters. A lot of them don’t trust each other” says Manny Centeno, in a phrase that will resonate with broadcasters and emergency agencies everywhere. “But some broadcasters do call themselves first responders, which shows they are fully engaged.”

In addition to the nationwide meetings, each state has a meeting of State broadcasters and their emergency management agencies each month.

The National Weather Service also reflects the expectation that there will be leadership and co-operation. Warnings’ broadcasters meet their local and regional broadcasters frequently to extend understanding. Additionally, the NWS set up NWSchat, to talk directly to broadcasters to ensure their message is well understood and useful.


Howard Price, the emergency manager at the American Broadcast Corporation, which runs radio and TV stations and networks across the US, sums up the three elements nicely: “It’s about public interest, convenience and necessity.” The public interest is obvious but why convenience? “Because FEMA, NWS and FCC created the platforms which we plug into to receive all the warnings and content.” Necessity? “That’s just competition to retain listenership and audience.”

The partnership model was started by the private sector. “Richard Rudman, the Director of Engineering at CBS started the “Partnership for Public Warning” says Howard Price. “We also started the Media Security and Advisory Council after 9/11. During Hurricane Katrina, Entercom, which owns one of their local stations never went off air. They set the gold standard for emergency broadcasting.”

Howard Price is proud of the role the broadcasters play in issuing warnings and information in the US. “EAS is a good system, but it has to be defended, and the local stations have to practice using it. The total cost for ABC to implement the mandatory system on its own network runs to five figures, and no-one here has ever suggested the Government should pay.”

Nevertheless the companies retain editorial control. “We put warnings on every station. It’s good for the warnings to be on during kids watching time as their parents are often watching with them. But the ABC never puts an unverified warning to air. No talk station in their right mind will do that.”

Charles W. McCobb

Program Manager

IPAWS Program Office /NCP


US Weather Service Radio

In the US it’s estimated that 98 percent of all people are within range of NOAA Weather Radio.” (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, runs the National Weather Service) . 

Chris Maier, the National Warning Co-ordination meteorologist says there are 1013 transmitters dotted around the country each with a range of about 60km. 

That makes it an important part of the US natural hazards warning system, so knowing a little about it can be useful in comparing and contrasting different warning platforms. 

People can buy the radio for their homes, office, schools or business. Prices can vary from $20 to $200, depending on the model. Models vary a little but generally they are activated when a tone alarm is broadcast by the NWS for “warning” or “watch” messages delivered by the NWS. The audio is recorded. It’s a  bit monotone, and will play on a loop, at various intervals (not continuous) determined by the event.

The tone (1050mh)will activate all the receivers which are equipped to receive it, even if the audio is turned off. This is especially useful for warnings which occur during the night when most people are asleep.

Many are geocoded, so the owner can opt to receive messages at county or city level, and can opt out of some message categories. For example, a person in a coastal county, but not right at the beach, might not care about Coastal Flood Warnings. This feature may also be called “Event Blocking” or “Defeat Siren”.

Most are AC adapted with battery backup for power outages. Some receivers come with an external antenna jack (normally in the back of the unit) to connect to a larger antenna (which can be indoors or outdoors).

 NWR broadcasts are in the Public Service VHF frequencies, just above FM radio and between the current TV channels 6 and 7 – so the radios are usually sold as AM/FM/Weather radio. They can be used in cars.

Some radios have a jack to plug-in external notification devices, such as strobe lights or bed shakers, which can be useful for those with special needs.

 The Australian perspective

Weather Radio puts responsibility in the hands of the National Weather Service for both creating AND disseminating warnings. The system is robust, and many weather service warning teams allow the service to broadcast a range of other non-weather related warnings. 

The highlight of the system is the “sleep” mode, in which the audio is only turned on when needed. This puts it in a special place, above all existing radio and tv; all online media and most mobile platforms (except for those among us who sleep with one ear open on the mobile next to the bed – we have to stop that and sleep!)

It meets the “UN Guiding Principles for Effective Early Warnings” which I wrote about earlier, particularly with respect to accessibility, if the strobe lights and vibrating beds and chairs are attached.)

An Australian consortium called “Yellow Bird” was trying to sell a similar concept to the Australian Government two years ago. They thought they could manufacture Yellow Bird for about ten dollars, and were looking at a mechanism to enable hyper-local decisions to be made on the broadcast footprint.

The idea of a separate warning and emergency radio station comes up from time to time, most recently when Major General Peter Cosgrove suggested it would have been useful after Cyclone Larry, mostly for recovery.

The coverage is extensive, but might not be top-of-mind for all Americans. In Manton, Cal,  where I spoke to people about bush fires, no-one mentioned Weather Radio; in Joplin, Missourri, in “tornado alley” a couple of people mentioned they had one, although one  turned it off when it became too intrusive. The receptionist/manager at my Washington DC hotel had never heard of it, and said there were none in the building.

James Bremer, the program director and senior engineer at KQMS in Redding told me his station could add Weather Radio broadcasts to their automatic content if they thought it might be warranted “but often its too repetitious.”

National Weather Radio infrastructure might be a barrier, but in reality new servers/codecs can direct audio to EXISTING AM and FM radios, and an inaudible tone could switch the radios on, so the system would these days be much less capital intesive. Local government, which has embraced the concept of tourist radio on the FM band in Australia, and which has over the years enthusiastically supported community radio, might find this a useful local communications system. It would cost less than giving very household three different coloured rubbish bins.

Of course it could also be used in place of what in the US is called “Emergency Alert” (Not to be confused with Australia’s telephone based “emergency alert”) where it would be  useful to direct messages to radio stations which aren’t staffed, which applies to many commercial regional stations in Australia, most community stations  and a few ABC stations. But this is getting into the area best served by Emergency Alert radio. I’ll describe that in a new post shortly.

I would like to know if any policy and strategy officers at any Federal or state jurisdiction or the BoM in Australia has looked at Weather radio?