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Enabling Residents to Hear and Heed Severe Weather Warnings

PORTAGE COUNTY, WI - Portage County, Wisconsin has a population of approximately 70,000 residents living in an area that is 62 percent urban and 38 percent rural (agricultural areas that are geographically separated). With 11.9 percent of the population 65 years old or older, there was concern that some residents might not be able to hear the County’s warning system regarding impending severe weather. Recognizing the deficiency in the ability to warn the elderly and individuals living in rural areas, the County’s emergency management coordinator came up with the idea of purchasing weather radios.

“We have a lot of residents living in mobile homes in rural areas and we have a substantial number of elderly residents. These individuals are significantly at risk,” said Sandy Curtiss, Emergency Management Coordinator. “They don’t always hear the warnings.”

To remedy the problem, the County applied to Wisconsin Emergency Management for a grant under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA's) Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) to purchase 150 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) All Hazards Weather Radios. The project was initiated following a 2002 presidential declaration for a windstorm event and the total project cost was $6,951.50. The HMGP grant totalled $5,200. The Non-federal share was $1,700 (the State and local governments paid $850 each). The County also paid an extra $51.50 for a cost overrun.

What is a NOAA All Hazards Weather Radio? The National Weather Service (NWS) provides local weather broadcasts, called NOAA Weather Radio, from over 700 different transmitters nationwide. It is estimated that over 85 percent of the population now resides within the service area of at least one transmitter. NOAA Weather Radio is a service of NOAA of the U.S. Department of Commerce. As the "Voice of the National Weather Service," it provides continuous broadcasts of the latest weather information from local NWS offices.

The regular broadcasts are specifically tailored to weather information needs of the people within the service area of the transmitter. For example, in addition to general weather information, stations in coastal areas provide information of interest to mariners. Other specialized information, such as hydrological forecasts and climatological data, are also broadcast.

During severe weather, NWS forecasters can interrupt the routine weather broadcasts and insert special warning messages concerning imminent threats to life and property. The forecaster can also add special signals to warnings that trigger "alerting" features of specially equipped receivers. This is known as the tone alert feature, and acts much like a smoke detector in that it will send an alarm when necessary to warn of an impending hazard. In the past, ALL receivers equipped with the tone alert feature within the listening area would alarm anytime a warning was issued. However, the advent of Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) technology permits newer receivers to alarm only if a warning is broadcast that pertains to a particular location. The newer receivers allow individuals to choose the warning locations the receiver will target.

Last updated June 3, 2020