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Chuck Husick: Techno-Talk, March 2002 BoatUS Magazine - current as of September 2009

Weather Radios

The 2002 boating season is about to start for the many BoatUS members who live in the temperate climate areas of the U.S. The rapid changes in the local climate common this time of the year are likely to bring some challenging weather. As a wise mariner, you know the need to maintain constant awareness of the weather, regardless of the size of the boat or the expanse of the waters involved.

Fortunately, NOAA's nationwide VHF/FM National Weather Radio (NWR) broadcast system provides an unsurpassed source of up-to-the-minute weather forecasts, nowcasts, severe weather alerts and warnings for more than 80% of the U.S. population. Broadcast on any one of seven marine band channels between 162.40 and 162.55 MHz, your marine VHF radio - whether a hand-held or fixed mount - provides immediate access to this wealth of potentially life saving information. All you need to do is listen.

In fact, many of the latest marine VHF radios include an automatic weather scan feature that silently listens for the special Warning Alarm Tone (WAT) broadcast by the NOAA weather stations, automatically alerting anyone in hearing range of the radio to the possibility of life- or property-threatening events.

Although the automatic WAT system is invaluable it suffers from the possibility of "crying wolf" since a warning advisory intended for one area or county can cover an area of 5,000 square miles and seven to 10 counties. The National Weather Service (NWS) recognized the problem and developed a means to digitally encode warnings according to the geographic area they cover and the type of warning being broadcast. The National Weather Radio Specific Area Message Encoding (NWR SAME) is now in operation throughout the United States and provides everyone using a compatible receiver with a very valuable enhancement to the NWR's already an excellent weather advisory and warning service.

SAME system assigns a six-digit Federal Information and Processing Standard (FIPS) code for individual areas of the overall geographic coverage area of a NOAA VHF weather broadcast station. SAME capable receivers allow a number (in some cases up to 15) area codes to be stored in memory. Severe weather or public safety alerts are preceded by transmission of the unique FIPS code for the area(s) covered by the alert. The SAME receiver will recognize and respond to only those alert codes for which it has been programmed, ignoring all others. Upon reception of a programmed FIPS number the radio will sound an alert tone and turn on its loudspeaker. Some SAME radios will also record and display time and nature of a received alert, a great feature if you are away from your boat when the alert was broadcast.

The FIPS codes for each area covered by the NWR SAME system may be furnished with a receiver, or may be obtained by calling 888-NWR-SAME (888-697-7263) or by telephoning your local NWS office. In addition to ensuring that the NWR SAME radio automatically alerts the user to only those warnings that affect the local area, the system automatically identifies the type of alert to be broadcast. Some receivers can be programmed to ignore specific types of alerts that don't apply to the user's activity, in this instance, boating. The system can use up to 35 individual "watch" and "warning" codes, plus 15 special "SS" codes that identify marine areas.

Radios equipped to receive and decode NWR SAME broadcasts are available for well under $100. Most operate from standard 120-volt AC power and usually include a 9-volt back-up battery to ensure operation in the event of a power failure. Portable, battery powered receivers capable of selectively responding to SAME alerts are also available. It is also possible to operate a 120-volt powered radio on a boat by using the boat's 12-volt system to power a 12-volt to 9-volt power supply whose output is used in place of the 9-volt back-up battery. It is also possible to power the radio from a 9-volt lithium battery, provided a careful watch is kept on battery condition. The possible impact of missing a severe weather warning can be significant. The relatively low cost and great safety value of this system makes it a desirable addition to any boat, especially smaller boats which are often at greatest risk from severe weather.

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