When a devastating tornado swept through the small town of Van Wert, Ohio in November 2002, its 200-mile-per-hour winds sent trees and cars flying. Among the buildings hit hardest was the town’s movie theater.
When the dust cleared, the roof had been blown off the building and two cars sat stacked at an angle where the front rows of seating had been.
Yet everyone who had been in the theater that day survived, thanks to a quick-thinking theater manager whose office was equipped with a NOAA weather radio that gave him enough of a warning to move patrons out of the theater to a safer part of the building.
For the Consumer Electronics Association, the Van Wert disaster was a call to action. Within a few months, CEA members were plotting out a set of standards for a new generation of weather radios designed to put those early warnings in the hands – and ears – of millions of consumers.
Dave Wilson, the CEA’s director of engineering, presented the CEA 2009 standard to broadcasters at NAB2004. Wilson says NOAA has made an aggressive effort to improve the coverage of its weather radio network, which now includes 121 forecast offices feeding 881 transmitters covering 87 percent of the U.S. population.
In order to serve that public, the CEA 2009 standard will require radios to meet a tough set of technical criteria to bear to the “Public Alert” logo. The standard creates a uniform set of channel numbers for the seven 162 MHz weather radio channels, which have previously been numbered in different ways by various manufacturers. Radios must meet sensitivity and selectivity standards, as well as allow consumers to tune to a specific channel manually (in addition to automatically selecting the strongest signal, which may not always be the most relevant to a listener’s local area).
To be heard in crisis conditions, radios must output audio at least 77 dB (measured at one meter away), and they have to have battery backup if powered by AC.
One challenge in developing the standard was deciding which event codes users would be able to block from automatically turning the radio on.
“The idea was to go through and take off the ones that were going to become an annoyance factor, so the receiver didn’t become a nuisance to the consumer,” Wilson said. At the same time, certain codes were set as unblockable, including haz-mat alerts, nuclear power plant disasters and tornado warnings.
As more receivers get into consumers’ hands, Wilson says, the NOAA weather radio network will become an increasingly important link in the emergency communications chain, even for events that aren’t necessarily weather-related.
“These networks are an excellent method for the government to alert the public about all types of hazards,” Wilson said.
Radios bearing the new Public Alert logo have just begun to reach store shelves, Wilson said. The CEA hopes the adoption of these standards will help manufacturers reach a consumer base that, he says, is eager to put the new weather radios in their homes and offices. A CEA study found that while 51 percent of Americans are aware of NOAA weather radio, only 13 percent of U.S. households actually own one. The CEA estimates a potential market of 7.1 million radios each year.