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NOAA NWS Emergency Warning

Ken Putkovich


U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) 


Effective emergency warning delivery to people with disabilities requires that there be an effective emergency warning system in place for people that don’t have any disabilities. You may have heard that we don’t have an effective emergency warning system in the United States, but that is wrong.   The Mission Statement of  the NOAA National Weather Service (NWS) is “The National Weather Service (NWS) provides weather, hydrologic, and climatic forecasts and warnings for the United States, its territories, and adjacent waters and ocean areas, for the protection of life and property and the enhancement of the national economy.  NWS data and products form a national information database and infrastructure which can be used by other government agencies, the private sector, the public and the global community.  This mission is currently being met, includes All-Hazard warnings for non-weather events, is being done daily with little or no involvement of anyone outside NOAA NWS, and is effective for warning people with disabilities, including those who are deaf or hard of hearing. 

Emergency warning systems need to convey concise, effective messages that can be easily understood by diverse audiences that are at risk.  Messages need to be carried quickly and directly from those authorized to generate warning messages to those most immediately at risk.  This must be reliably done in a minimum amount of time regardless of circumstances at the source of the emergency warning or in the area at risk. Emergency warning systems need to deliver specific information directly to people in specific areas at risk.   Emergency warning systems need to be un-intrusive during non-emergency periods, yet be able to wake a deaf person in the middle of the night during an emergency.  Emergency warnings systems can’t tolerate outages due to bad weather.

Effective emergency warning requires systems specifically designed for and dedicated to emergency warning delivery.  While an emergency warning system may be used for other purposes during non-emergency periods, a system built for non-emergency purposes will not necessarily be effective in a secondary role of delivering emergency messages. This means that a warning provider or source must have quick, secure access to the system at all times; that the message transport system must be able to quickly convey the warning from the source to those at risk regardless of circumstances (weather, time-of-day, availability of public commercial power or communications, etc.) at the source, at the area at risk and points in between; and that the end-point delivery mechanism of the emergency warning system must be able to deliver the emergency message to everyone at risk regardless of personal or situational circumstances.

An effective emergency warning system has to be built on a closely held, tightly controlled infrastructure whose primary purpose is delivering emergency messages.  It cannot be built on telecommunications intended for public access, with service subject to failure due to environmental conditions or heavy traffic loading on holidays or during local emergencies.  Nor can the system rely on systems with extended links that add complexity and delay to the collection, processing, and delivery of emergency warnings.  It must be able to activate an attention getting alarm in the home or community.  It must deliver a message that can be understood by those at risk, regardless of  immediate or personal circumstance, with enough information and time to allow immediate, effective action by those at risk. It cannot rely on the vagaries of emergency warnings and associated captioning services as currently provided on commercial radio, television, and cable services. Seconds lost due to system delays, failures, or indecision can translate into lives lost.  

That means that a deaf person on the North Shore of Kauai, that is without utilities due to an ongoing  tropical storm on Thanksgiving should be able to receive a Tsunami Warning  from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu; that a mother busy tending to her children in Brunswick, Maryland  should be able to receive a warning from local emergency managers about a toxic chemical spill and fire at the rail yard during flash flooding of the Potomac River on Mother’s Day; or that people sheltered in a school gymnasium in Punta Gorda, Florida due to a hurricane should be able to receive a tornado warning on July 4. 

 It is highly likely that those people at risk, local emergency managers and public safety officials responsible for their safety, and the media in the area will get a timely warning message from NOAA NWS emergency warning systems (NWR and NWWS).  It is much less likely that other dissemination systems that are currently being promoted as solutions to the problem of emergency warning delivery to people with disabilities, i.e., systems utilizing the Internet, text Email, cell phones, landline phones, or the Emergency Alert System on commercial radio, TV and cable would be able to deliver timely, effective emergency warnings under the conditions and situations described.  The technologies are viable, but they lack the means to economically collect, process, and deliver emergency warnings in a seamless, timely manner from authenticated sources directly to those at risk.   

 NOAA NWS infrastructure and systems are the only viable means to effectively warn people at risk due to natural and man-made All Hazard disaster situations.  They have a demonstrated, documented history of saving lives. These emergency warning systems are in place, operational, and Federally owned, as is the critical infrastructure (secure facilities, trained staff, and state of the art telecommunication and information technology systems) supporting their operation.  Efforts to improve emergency warning delivery to people with disabilities should be focused on improvements  to NOAA NWS systems with the goal of eliminating current weaknesses and enhancing capabilities to deliver warnings directly to those at risk and to other end point dissemination systems .   

In the past ten years the NOAA Weather Radio has added over 500 new stations to the NWR Network.  National population coverage has increased from less than 85% to over 97%.  NWR Specific Area Message Encoding was implemented to allow warnings to be more geo-targeted and event specific.  NOAA NWS partnered with the Consumer Electronics Association to establish the Public AlertTM Standard and certification program for quality assurance in NWR receivers.  The NWR Program Office has worked with manufacturers to provide accessible/assistive emergency warning products for people with disabilities and has done outreach to educate and inform people with disabilities about NOAA Weather Radio.  

The NOAA NWS is currently developing a Dissemination Master Plan (DMP) that defines a National Dissemination Network (NDN).  This effort includes a number of proposed performance enhancing improvements to the NWR.  Among the improvements are those intended to make the NWR network more reliable and versatile by replacing existing analog terrestrial telecommunications links to stations from NWS offices with digital satellite links and to provide complete text emergency warning message on existing NWR broadcasts. 

The need for the digital link replacement was vividly demonstrated during hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The majority of the NWR stations that ceased broadcasting along the Gulf coast failed because the commercial analog telephone lines providing emergency warning messages from the local Weather Forecast Offices to the transmitting stations failed.  A secondary benefit of using a satellite feed is that an emergency message for broadcast can originate from any location in the country, not a single NWS office as is now the case.  An emergency message could also be delivered for broadcast from a single source location anywhere in the country to a selected group of NWR stations. This also enables the use of text broadcast technology developed by NOAA NWS through a Small Business Innovative Research grant administered by the Department of Commerce.  NWR text broadcasting would provide a complete, accessible emergency warning service directly to over 97% of the United States population. It would provide a timely secondary source of geo-specific audio and text emergency warnings through other end-point providers using cell phone, pager, Internet, Email, radio, television, and cable services.

Unfortunately, the fiscal picture is dismal and support for these initiatives at NOAA NWS is nearly non-existent.  Funding for the NOAA Weather Radio and associated outreach programs to people with disabilities has been cut.  Advocates for Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Executive Order 13347 are few and support for increasing accessibility in existing initiatives is limited.  Senate Bill 1753, the Warning, Alarm, Response Network (WARN) Act is mostly silent on access and accommodation and the likelihood of it being passed and funded at $250 million is remote.  Much of the recent work that has been done by advocate groups (NCD, NOD, ICC, WGHB) is focused on planning in advance of an event and emergency response after an event – little is said about emergency warning immediately prior to and during an event, when timely action may immediately save lives.  Even less is said of NOAA Weather Radio and its role as the only emergency warning system actively engaged in providing effective access to people with disabilities.   

In my opinion, unless the disparate advocate groups that are seeking improved access to emergency warnings for people with disabilities consolidate their activities and focus on what can be done to implement an accessible National Emergency Warning System built on NOAA NWS infrastructure; the likelihood of this need being satisfied is remote


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