Created: 23 June 1998
Updated: 12 April 2001 - added some updated
material since the new NWR system has been implemented.
Let's begin with the premise that the so-called "NOAA" Weather Radio (NWR) is intended to disseminate information to the users of weather information.** Vice-President Gore has gone on record about how more transmitters are needed . . . no argument there . . . but show me the money, Mr. Vice-President! [Update (12 April 2001): some additional transmitters have indeed been created. Naturally, coverage is better, but it still seems inadequate to me and I don't think the new, automated product is yet what I'd hoped for.] I want to discuss some observations from this spring, having listened to the NWR in various places around the Midwest during my 1998 storm chasing vacation. Then I want to talk about where NWR might go in the future.
It seems clear that the NWR offers a real opportunity to disseminate information. In their infinite wisdom, of course, the great white fathers in Washington decreed that NWR would operate on a frequency band that was unreachable with an ordinary radio. Instead, the users have to buy a special radio. This choice forces a distinct reduction in the market "penetration" of the NWR broadcasts. Most folks probably don't even know there is such a thing as a "weather radio" broadcast, and have little inclination or perceived need for what it might offer.
But let's assume that those with a real need would have taken the time to find out about it and pay the modest price for a specialty radio. Perhaps emergency managers, farmers, or whatever fall into this category. Presumably, they need current weather information from the NWS. Some might need the climatological data, some might need severe weather warnings, some might need hourly weather observations, some might need forecasts, etc.
With the present set-up, the radio operates as a sequence of pre-recorded cassettes. Someone records a batch of stuff onto a cassette and inserts it in the sequencer. The system cycles through the cassettes over and over, with new information simply being inserted somewhere in the sequence and old information on cassettes being pulled and recycled. If a user switches on the radio anywhere in the sequence, the system eventually cycles around to repeat what that user may have missed . . . unless that information got pulled before the cycle returns to it. [Update (12 April 2001): The system is now automated, to a large extent, with a computer-synthesized voice ("Mr. Roboto"), with the conversion of product text to "speech" and sequencing having been computerized. Athough this does seem to allow the limited staff the chance to try to keep up with an increasing number of transmitters, each with its own local products, the overall quality has not changed for the better, as I see it.]
In order for this system to work effectively, the cycle certainly can't be too long. A user might get frustrated by having to wait for the sequence to recycle, and just bail out. This puts some significant constraints on how much information can be disseminated this way. Any message that takes too long to read will result in making the sequence too long.
For a lot of the ordinary broadcast cycles, the information being put out is not too time perishable. Most of the information, except for the hourly observations, changes slowly enough that the system doesn't require much attention or effort. Of course, at least one cassette in the sequence usually is devoted to station identification ... an FCC requirement ... and typically involves some subtle NWS "advertising."
In situations involving severe weather, the time perishability of the information becomes vastly greater, and management of the system requires considerably more effort (resources) if it is to work properly. Some sites used to go to "live" NWR broadcasts in severe weather events, although this has apparently gone away in the age of "Mr. Roboto." In the "modernized" era of the NWS, radar updates are supposed to be replaced by "nowcasts" ... IMHO, this is a serious degradation in information dissemination. More on this later.
In listening to NWR during storm chasing around the Midwest, I have found the quality of the broadcasts to be highly variable, with a few sites being very conscientious about frequent updates, but most are pretty slow to update their NWR broadcasts. I have heard hourly observations that were almost 3 hours old!
The reading of the observations can be amazing. In NM, I heard hourlies out of ABQ where if the winds were gusting, the gust speeds were noted, but not the direction! . . . if no gusts were observed, the directions were given. Most hourly observations for the station originating the broadcast are reasonably complete, but those read for surrounding stations typically give no more than sky conditions and the temperature ... no wind or dewpoint observations.
Some readers are barely comprehensible ... some read too fast to be understood ... some read so slowly, their broadcasts are interminable . . . some have non-native accents and so are difficult to understand . . . some have voices that don't carry well over the radio. It seems at times that no one listens to these broadcasts in an effort to provide some quality control.
IMHO, the replacement of regular radar updates with "nowcasts" has been an abysmal failure. The nowcasts contain little or no real information about what is going on and the forecast aspects of the nowcasts sound more like a plain forecast than one based on mesoscale information. The Central Region Headquarter's (CRH) standards in this regard are the absolute worst I have encountered. Their decisions on how to operate the NWR have been terrible, from my perspective. They give the users so little real information, it's hardly worth having. CRH apparently have programmed for the least common denominator and so have produced a broadcast that approaches being content-free.
When watches are issued, they often are simply inserted in the sequence somewhere with the routine broadcasts continuing. This might be acceptable when the watch has sufficient lead time that no thunderstorms are up in the broadcast area. Once thunderstorms are affecting the broadcast area in a watch situation . .. IMHO ... the routine stuff needs to be pulled and the broadcast attention should shift to the watch plus frequent updates on the ongoing weather, including statements about the non-observation of severe weather, if appropriate. That is, it can be valuable to know that nothing has been observed in the way of severe weather. During the time prior to the Spencer tornado (at about 7 pm), I was astounded at the amount of information coming from FSD about severe weather after the watch had been issued and thunderstorms were in the area ... virtually none. Instead, we were still hearing about the number of cooling degree days so far during the month. I got much more information from an AM radio station than from the NWR!!! Perhaps this says that FSD has a wonderful partnership with the broadcast media, but it is an awful statement about their ability to provide useful NWR broadcasts. When the most direct link to the NWS is inferior to that via the commercial broadcast media, I think it suggests that something is wrong with the NWR.
Once warnings commence, it is appalling to me how long the cycles can take. In NM, ABQ had two watches in effect for their area and they apparently had to read both of them ... plus the interminable nowcasts mentioned earlier. Their cycle was so long that it was nearly possible to drive out of range before hearing everything twice. Reading the long, time-consuming watch messages during a warning situation makes no sense to me. Include a statement about the watches remaining in effect for the area, surely, but the main focus during warning situations should be on the warnings, not the watches!!
During significant severe weather episodes, it makes sense to me for someone to broadcast live on the NWR to keep the users updates. Yes, some of the users might want to hear the routine stuff, but surely in life-threatening situations, our priorities should shift to potentially lifesaving information, not the climatological data.
It also makes no sense to me to review tornado safety rules in a warning situation ... this can be done during the watch time, prior to the development of activity to the point where warnings are needed. A long message about safety rules during a warning situation simply prolongs the cycle, when time is short and the attention should be on frequent updates to increase the "situation awareness" of the users.
In short, my observation is that NWR is not a very effective tool for weather information dissemination, especially with regard to severe weather. Notably, the priority of warnings over routine programming does not seem to be very high and, for whatever reason, the updating of the information is pretty slow.
O.K. So what can be done to solve the situation, as it presently exists. Taking the Vice-President at his word, there should soon be a huge infusion of resources into NWR, both for new transmitters to provide virtually nationwide coverage, rather than the very spotty coverage we now have, and for the staffing resources to provide frequent updates and information tailored for each transmitter site. I think the likelihood of this is minimal. Talk is cheap and I'd guess that there is very little chance to obtain funding for either of these two components necessary to allow NWR to become the dissemination medium that it should be.
It underscores what a foreign visitor once told me ... the NWS doesn't really work for the public. It works for the commercial broadcast media. Historically, it's presumed that dissemination takes place via the media, notably local TV stations and The Weather Channel. It's part of a "partnership" that has had the result of stunting and trivializing the paltry efforts by the NWS to provide information directly to the public.
It certainly can be argued that NWR is not very effective, so what should be done? A pretty good case can be made for doing away with it entirely. It's reaching only a few users and is so understaffed and underutilized that it may not be worth the current expenditure levels. The technology is old and outdated, and the NWS struggles to find the resources to support it, even at its current inadequate level. There is little chance it will ever be funded at a level that would allow it to become what it should be. Why not just zero it out and be done with it?
Of course, some WFOs have managed to do a relatively good job of integrating NWR into their operations. Somehow, they have found the resources to make it work effectively to serve their users. They might well be loathe to part with it, since they have succeeded (at least to some extent) where others have failed. There are still many coverage gaps, of course, and if those were filled (perhaps a miracle will occur?), it's not obvious that even the good NWR programming of a limited number of WFOs could be maintained with more transmitters needing individualized programming, owing to staffing limits.
Another problem with NWR is that radio is basically an information system that is becoming obsolete. The clear wave of the future for disseminating weather information is via graphics. New tools like the Internet are coming into use by an ever-growing segment of the public as information sources and it is quite likely that even the rickety old NWS is being dragged, however unwillingly, into the Internet age. Perhaps this is another argument to drop the NWR and put those resources into developing more and better tools for the Internet. Of course, if the NWS gets too good at dissemination of its information, the media are likely to begin to gripe about unfair competition from the government. If the NWS really worked at dissemination, then its media "allies" would begin to feel threatened. However, if it does virtually nothing, then every disaster brings complaints about "it struck without warning" and calls for Congressional investigations. It really amounts to an NWS Catch-22, of its own making. Our society seems very confused about how to integrate public and private weather services. Everyone wants:
It seems pretty obvious to me that these desired ends are neither achievable nor compatible.
Personally, I think that in spite of its apparent obsolescence, radio is still an effective medium. It's cheap, it can be used by people driving (unlike graphics), and with tone alerts and other new technologies, it might yet find a useful place in an integrated dissemination system. It seems unlikely to me that we are going to ever be able to support NWR with the resources needed to make it effective. At best it will likely be a tool of value only to a few WFOs who can manage to make it work (at least within the context of NWR being part of a number of other systems for information dissemination).
Do we want NWR to work as a means by which the public obtains weather information? Then it needs to be recognized that if a potential user fails to obtain that information by consulting NWR at a time when that information is needed, that user is unlikely to return to it after more than a few such failures. WFOs are going to have to be more conscientious about priorities (notably with respect to severe weather) if they expect users to listen to NWR! No substantial base of user support for NWR will ever develop under the current conditions. Without that base of user support, resources to improve upon the current failings of NWR will never be allocated. The various contradictory pressures on the NWS have given us a product that falls far short of the goal I enunciated at the beginning of this discussion. Until some boundary conditions are provided that are not mutually contradictory, the situation can't go anywhere, and NWR will be mired in mediocrity.