How to Receive Emergency Alert System Messages
We’ve written before about the need to urgently make your way to your shelter if you receive a warning of pending nuclear attack, and about setting a policy for how long you wait for others to join you in your shelter.
But these considerations overlook one vital issue. How can you get any such warnings of any type of pending disaster that you need to respond to? It isn’t just pending nuclear Armageddon you have to be worried about, either. All sorts of weather related events, or other local emergencies – dangerous chemical spills, public safety/law enforcement alerts, and so on – might occur, and it would be advantageous to be among the first to know of such issues.
In scenarios where seconds may literally make a life and death difference to your ability to adequately respond to an urgent threat, you can’t rely on noticing an item on the television news or hearing a special announcement on a regular radio. You need some type of specific warning system that will grab your attention directly if an urgent warning is issued.
The good news is that there is a national system in place for such warning messages to be promulgated, and it is tied in to the National Weather Service – the NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards (NWR) service. You can get special radio receivers that will be activated by such warnings (see below for details).
These Emergency Alert System (EAS) emergency messages are sent out with additional data attached to them, specifying the type of alert message and the county it applies to. Messages can be for a single county, for up to 31 different counties, for an entire state (or multiple states), or for the entire nation. The geographic tagging of the message is referred to as Specific Area Message Encoding or SAME.
Alert messages fall into one of various different descriptive categories (ranging from Avalanche watch messages to volcano warnings) and have one of four different status codes signifying their degree of immediacy. The four codes are :
“W” for WARNINGS “A” for WATCHES “E” for EMERGENCIES “S” for STATEMENTS
- A WARNING is an event that alone poses a significant threat to public safety and/or property, probability of occurrence and location is high, and the onset time is relatively short.
- A WATCH meets the classification of a warning, but either the onset time, probability of occurrence, or location is uncertain.
- An EMERGENCY is an event that, by itself, would not kill or injure or do property damage, but indirectly may cause other things to happen that result in a hazard. For example, a major power or telephone loss in a large city alone is not a direct hazard, but disruption to other critical services could create a variety of conditions that could directly threaten public safety.
- A STATEMENT is a message containing follow-up information to a warning, watch, or emergency.
Emergency and Statement type messages are sometimes grouped together as ‘Advisory’ messages, making for a three level set of categories.
Here’s a list of different message types that might be sent as part of a NWR EAS message.
SAME/EAS Capable Radios
Clearly it makes sense to buy a specific radio designed to receive these types of messages. The radio, while switched on, would normally be silent and would only come to life if it received a message coded to the county or counties that you wanted to receive alert messages for.
Ideally, you’d want the radio to be mains operated but with a battery backup capability so if the power goes out, the radio will still continue functioning.
You want to be able to program the radio as to which counties you wish to receive alert messages about. We suggest you should program alerts for adjacent counties as well as your own county, especially if your county is small or you are close to the boundary with another county.
Some radios also allow you to filter out some types of alerts that you don’t want to be advised about – for example, if you live a long way from the coast, you might not be interested in coastal flood warnings, and you might decide to forego receiving child abduction messages no matter where you live.
And, of course, you want to be sure the radio has some type of loud warning device – an alarm or siren – that will sound when it receives a warning so you’ll be instantly notified.
Some radios might be certified as complying with either the Public Alert Standard or as being approved by the NOAA as having the necessary capabilities for the system. You can see the two logos displayed here. Radios that are so certified might not be fully featured, and ones that have not paid for the certification may be equally featured or even better. So these certifications are interesting, but not mandatory.
While some model radios can be expensive, you can also find excellent units for under $30 – for example, this Midland WR-120B which sells for about $25 at Amazon . If you wanted to spend a bit more, the Midland WR-300 is also a good choice (about $45), but doesn’t have any additional ‘must have’ features compared to its cheaper cousin, the WR-120B.
All the preparations in the world will be useless if you’re not warned in time to respond to a sudden unexpected threat.
The NWR EAS system might send out warnings in time for you to respond to them, but only if you have a compatible radio receiver that will ‘switch on’ and alarm/alert you when it receives the specific types of warnings you have told it to respond to.
While the NWR EAS system isn’t guaranteed to always give you adequate notice of all pending threats, it certainly increases your odds of being alerted in time to adequately respond. With compatible radios costing as little as $25, it is something you should invest in.