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Friday, December 28, 2012

The weather radio that cried wolf

Living in Texas for a number of years taught me a few things about weather. The finer points are relatively scary and uninteresting for a broad audience, but it can be boiled down to "stay informed and know what your shelter options are". The biggest problems where I lived were flash flooding and tornadoes. Either kind of weather could catch you at any time and really mess up your life.

For this reason, I bought one of those automatic weather radios which sits there and listens for alert tones. When the right sort of notification goes out, it makes a noise and lets you know something is up. This was good but was also mildly annoying since it would alert for anything happening in any area which was covered by that transmitter. Some distant county might be under the gun while it was perfectly clear where I was. It just wasn't helpful.

Fortunately, the weather radio stations started encoding signals for specific regions into their alerts. I bought a new radio which could be taught to only "wake up" for those things in my specific area, and life was good again. Now it would only make noise for something which might affect me, and I could treat it as a strong indicator of danger once again.

There was one other time when it would make noise: the weekly test. This was useful since it established that everything in the chain was still working, and so I didn't mind it. It also tended to happen around noon during the day, so it wouldn't wake me up, either.

Then things changed again. Someone decided that instead of being merely weather alerts, those stations would now convey things like AMBER alerts. For those who haven't heard of them, it's basically an all-points bulletin for child abduction cases, except it gets pushed to ordinary citizens instead of just police. It shows up on normal broadcast TV and radio stations, freeway message boards, and yes, on the formerly weather-only stations.

Now, any time a kid was missing or thought to be missing in a situation sufficient to generate an AMBER alert, my radio would go off. It could be the middle of the night, and I'd be in no position to keep an eye out for anything, and it would go off. It became mildly annoying but I never did anything about it.

Then, one day, I moved to Silly Valley and brought my radio with me. I reprogrammed it for this new area, and discovered something: by and large, we do not have weather here. We don't even really have thunderstorms. I might hear one clap of thunder every two years, and I think I've seen two flashes of lightning the whole time I've been here. The worst which might happen is some localized flooding during the rainy season.

As a result of this non-weather living situation, my radio had very little to say which was useful. It essentially turned into "missing kid radio". I guess the increased population of the Bay Area played a big part in that. It would also go off for people who were thought to be crossing through the area, like from Washington or Oregon down to LA. It was nuts.

There wasn't any way to filter this out with my radio. AMBER alerts didn't exist back when it was built, so it didn't have an explicit type for handling them. It would treat it as "UNKNOWN ALERT TUNE TV" and would go off every single time. It was quite annoying and it didn't give me any data which was personally useful to me.

Finally, I just turned it off. After all, what are the odds that anything interesting would happen around here? An earthquake would be over long before the radio could go off, after all. We didn't get storms, really, so as long as I stayed smart about localized flooding, things should be okay.

Scanner on NOAA weather radio

That basically worked out. Then the massive 2011 earthquake in Japan happened. A few hours later, my phone rang. One of my family members was concerned for my safety because she had heard about a tsunami warning for northern California. I turned on my scanner to the local weather frequency and sure enough, they were pushing out an alert. I had missed it because I had decided to switch off my radio some years before.

I did manage to catch a recording, though.

A couple of hours later, the tsunami reached this side of the world. It didn't do anything of consequence in my immediate area, but it did make a mess in Santa Cruz and wiped out some marinas in different parts of the state. I would have completely missed it because I had been asleep at the time the alerts went out.

This is a direct consequence of treating my radio as unreliable and disabling it. I understand there are newer models which can now be used to ignore certain kinds of alerts, but they are not well-known. None of them seem to be sold with features like "quiet time" or otherwise recognizing that not all alerts are equally important. This kind of control should be up to the user, but these radios tend to be relatively stupid and unable to be customized.

I think this might just be a market waiting to be tapped. Someone just needs to make a receiver with a goal of not being annoying. With a focus on that, the rest should just fall into place.

I wonder how many other people turned off their weather radios when the annoyance factor became too high. There might be a bunch of these things just sitting there, dead to the world, and not protecting anyone. What a waste.