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.


The US national emergency warning system

Threats of nuclear war, nuclear meltdown, and catastrophic level natural disasters have resulted in the US creating an integrated warning service that is effective, reliable, flexible, comprehensive, local and personal.

It’s called the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) and includes several major components: the Emergency Alert System (EAS)  (don’t confuse this with the phone-based local warning system operating in Australia under the same name.) which leverages the radio and television broadcasting, the Commercial Mobile Alerting System (CMAS) that communicates to cellular phones, and an interface to the US’s National Weather Service’s All Hazards Weather Radio network. (See next post for details of IPAWS and CMAS, andf previous post for NWS)

Although EAS was established and is understood to be a contingency platform in the event of other communication failures, it has become at the local level, a primary warning system.

In the 1950’s the US legislated to create a public early warning system in response to the threat of a nuclear armed attack from the Soviet Union. It was assumed the US President would need to be able to address the population immediately. The first system was set up under the electro-magnetic radiation bill because AM and FM transmitters were used for targeting of warheads, it came under this legislative sphere.

After the Cuban missile crisis in the 1960’s, the system was enhanced and modernised and named with Emergency Broadcast System (EBS).

It was updated again in the 1990’s to take advantage of new communications mechanisms and renamed the Emergency Alert System (EAS), and after Hurricane Katrina, was modified yet again, to deal with specific events.

And it’s been enhanced after technological developments, and now embraces the cell phone system which also rebroadcasts messages.

The nature of the US society, the culture driven by private ownership, and the  technology available to the US, have driven the developments.

Initially the system was simple and elegant – radio and TV transmitters would be connected to a control room operated by The Federal Emergency Management Agency (or its then equivalent) and the President would be able to speak to the public within ten minutes.

It was robust and virtually fail safe. The signal was provided to multiple and numerous “primary” radio and TV broadcasters in any or all regions. They would then be responsible for rebroadcasting instantly and at least two other broadcasters in their region would be expected to retransmit. Those broadcasters then rebroadcast as well, until nearly all radio and TV stations were connected. They called it a “daisy chain” which describes it nicely. There are 20,000 transmitters attached to the system.

 It was tested nationwide for the first time in November 2011 and while something like 20 percent of the broadcasts, at the hyper-local level, failed, the test was deemed a success because technical strengthens and weaknesses were identified and can now be addressed.

Broadcasters were required to install the reception equipment at their own cost and as part of the broadcast licence agreement,  but stand by generators for the primary stations were funded by a government program.  While this was initially pushed as a public service function for broadcasters,  in reality competitive forces have ensured that all the major broadcasters take the EAS seriously.

Initially the system was set up to take Presidential messages. In 1995 it was decided that it would be enhanced to allow local and state emergency messages to be inserted, and the National Weather Service was connected to it in 2006. In this way National Weather alerts are monitored, and frequently rebroadcast, on all radio and TV stations, as well as NOAA National Weather Radio.

The guiding principles have since been extended to the internet and mobile platforms. In this way the system has become what’s now known as the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).

One of the major principles of IPAWS is that it is an open network. All emergency agencies, as well as the National Weather Service are able to use its operating standards and protocols to issue warnings.

“Disseminators” receive data in the same way at the same time for redistribution.

This has become vital to the system’s flexibility.  Initially the content was directed at radio and TV, and then extended to National Weather Service.

The development of the internet and RSS feeds meant that some broadcasters on digital platforms wanted the content.

And finally with the advent of local area cell broadcasting, telecommunications firms wanted to enhance the value of the handset, and they too receive all content for rebroadcasting.  Approximately 400 commercial mobile service providers have licensed for content, and 100 are already broadcasting warnings messages to those who choose to buy handsets which are emergency warning connected. Embedded data enables all outlets to be automated.

The system has never been used for a Presidential address.  Antwane Johnson, the Director of IPAWS,  says  it doesn’t mean there have never been widespread threat to warrant that.

“It’s a contingency system and was only ever to be used if other telecommunications systems failed.” The telecommunications and broadcast industry has never failed, so was not used in the missile crisis, or the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks.

Meeting Antwane Johnson, FEMA, October 2012.

Mr Johnson works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) which is a division of the Department of Homeland Security.  “Our goal is to improve the nation’s capability to ensure under all conditions the President can talk to the public, but when the President isn’t using the system, local officials can use the capabilities to send alerts to their local citizens to enhance public safety. We develop, maintain and operate the system.”

Manny Centeno, a program manager for IPAWS, says the standard is to be able to broadcast to the entire nation in ten minutes, and participants or disseminators are required to be able to rebroadcast almost instantly when a new alert is received. The system is automated: “We can do much better than 10 minutes if not better. It’s virtually instant.

“Although the legislation provides that we make the system available for Presidential messages, almost all of the use is currently at the local and state level, and through NOAA weather warnings.”

“The only mandatory requirement is that the system be in place for a Presidential address. All other content is voluntary, but there is tremendous private sector involvement, being driven by their licence requirement to serve the public interest – that’s the primary reason the US allocated spectrum to broadcasters.

Some broadcasters were initially worried about liability, for carrying warning messages, and for failure to carry them, and for hoaxes.

Senders of alert messages are validated in the IPAWS Open Platform for Emergency Networks, or IPAWS-OPEN system, through a series of cyber security protocols before rebroadcast but there are no other filters.


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?