For those who live in the United States, the U.S. Government maintains a nationwide network of 1,000 emergency radio stations (NWR). These continuously broadcast region-specific weather information, and now other emergency information, too. Therefore, all emergency kits assembled for use in the U.S. should include a radio which is capable of receiving these “All-Hazards” radio broadcasts.
Originally designed to provide the public with emergency storm warnings, NWR radio stations are now equipped to broadcast official warnings for all sorts of public safety emergencies. These broadcasts are generally in the format of recorded messages which repeat the important details continuously until the next update, or until the hazard is over.
Working with the Federal Communication Commission’s Emergency Alert System , NWR is now an “All Hazards” radio network. It is the single best source for reliable and up-to-date information on storm alerts, and for receiving “official” government information during any major emergency situation.
The dispatches for these regional NWR broadcasts are assembled from information gleaned from NOAA meteorologists (for weather events), as well as input from other government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security. Since NWR incorporates information from federal, state, and local Emergency Managers and other public officials, it is a consolidated source of important time-sensitive information for local, regional, and national disasters and emergencies.
In it’s new format, regional emergency broadcasts include information on nearby natural disasters such as earthquakes, environmental disasters such as a train derailment which created a dangerous chemical spill, as well as all other major public safety emergencies.
NWR regional stations have the ability to provide rapid notifications for routine local matters such as AMBER Alerts, as well as network-wide national warnings on active terrorist threats. NWR will be used to broadcast DHS information on nuclear, biologic and chemical attacks; CDC information on the spread of a pandemic and quarantine measures; and by local law enforcement to notify the public of lock-down measures and curfew information during periods of social unrest. In short, any broad emergency which impacts the lives of the general public regionally or nationally.
Historically known as the “Voice of NOAA’s National Weather Service,” it’s important to understand that NWR now provides a much broader range of warnings. However, since it is still a service provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), it can be expected to maintain its primary focus on weather-related warnings.
To accomplish it’s threefold radio-broadcast mission of early warning, disaster response, and post-disaster information, NWR maintains a network of more than 1,000 transmitters to cover all 50 U.S. states, adjacent coastal waters, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the U.S. Pacific Territories.
However, as the above maps shows, there are still some rural areas without good reception. Nonetheless, all population-dense areas are well covered, usually by several broadcast stations, thus the need for multiple radio frequencies.
To receive NWR broadcasts, a special radio receiver dedicated to that purpose is required, or, a radio which is capable of receiving these seven frequencies (MHz):
If you are located more than 150 miles from a NWR transmitter, or in a mountainous area, select a radio receiver that is equipped with an external antenna which is capable of boosting a distant radio signal.
Since each region uses a specific frequency(ies), identify the ones you will need in an emergency. (Click Here for NWR transmitter locations). If your radio has pre-sets, lock-in your station frequencies in advance, so that you won’t need to search for that information during an emergency situation.
In addition to specialty radios designed to listen to these NWR stations, you can also find AM/FM radios which include the seven NWR frequencies. These are usually advertised as including “NOAA Weather Alerts”, “NOAA Emergency Broadcasts” or “WB” frequencies. The term “NWR” is rarely used.
Also, some 2-way radios, such as certain brands/models of CB radios, SSB, marine, FRS and GMRS radios, have an added feature which allows them to be used to listen to these NWR emergency broadcasts. Multipurpose 2-way radios such as these can provide an added advantage during an emergency situation, especially if paired with a walkie-talkie.
Emergency radios marketed under recognizable brands such as “Red Cross,” do not necessarily indicate high quality. Among knowledgeable experts, popular emergency radio brands include: Grundig, Kaito, Yaesu, and Sangean. Also popular are emergency radios made by Midland, Cobra, Sony, Uniden, Motorola, Eaton and C. Crane.
Radio Power Options
With all emergency radios, AC (wall) power and battery-powered operation is essential. And, automotive 12-volt adapters are a top priority option.
Some emergency radios can also be powered with a built-in hand crank, which is a nice, albeit laborious-to-use helpful feature. Or, a small solar panel incorporated into the radio, which generally only works marginally well even on bright sunny days. Yet, these minuscule solar panels still provide a modest benefit if you are in an area where daylight also brings distinct shadows (indicating enough sunshine to energize a small solar panel).
Despite the shortcomings of hand-cranks and radio-mounted solar panels, it is still advantageous to have an emergency radio that is equipped these features. The Kaito Voyager Pro KA600 digital radio, depicted in the photo at the top of this article, is an example of a compact radio which incorporates all of these power options, plus a telescoping external antenna.
Some hand-crank models not only power the radio, but can also be used to charge your cellular telephone. But if you intend to use this added feature, be sure to purchase the power-tip adapter needed to connect your model of cellular phone, and don’t forget to buy a new adapter if you get a new phone.
Less-expensive models of hand-crank radios generally use Ni-Cad batteries, and these can fail after long-term storage. If your radio came with a Ni-Cad battery, check the manual to see if it can be replaced with rechargeable Lithium batteries. These will provide more hours of listening, and they have a long shelf life.
Either way, if you won’t be using your radio for daily listening, be sure to remove the batteries prior to storage. If you leave the batteries in the radio, after a few months of no-use, even the best batteries might corrode or leak, causing damage to the radio. Don’t risk this potential problem; remove the batteries before storage.
During an emergency situation, NWR/NOAA radio messages are constantly transmitted, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To alleviate the jading effect caused by the repetitiveness of these recorded messages, some radios provide an alert signal when the message changes. This is a helpful feature.
Battery Size: To increase adaptability, select an emergency radio which uses standard-size batteries such as: AAA, AA, C or D.
A radio which requires a special battery is not as useful during an extended emergency. It’s not unusual for these proprietary batteries to fail, or no longer accept a full charge. A replacement or spare specialty-battery may be impossible to find, whereas a standard battery can often be cannibalized from another device.
When possible, standardize the batteries you use in your radio, flashlight and other battery-powered devices. This will make it possible for you to share batteries between devices.
Also, just as with flashlights, some radios work longer than others, even when they are using the same type battery and the same number of batteries. So look for information on “operating time per set of fresh batteries” when you compare different radio makes and models.
Long-term power consumption is an important consideration which is often overlooked when purchasing an emergency radio. This run-time difference can be very significant if you are in a protracted emergency situation. The battery pack in some radios can be drained after just a few hours of listening, while another brand of radio can continue to operate for multiple days, powered by an identical set of batteries.
Earbuds: If conserving battery power is a concern, use earbuds (in-ear headphones). These can substantially extend battery life since the battery isn’t being used to power the radio’s internal speaker.
Extra Batteries: Each radio must be stored either with sufficient back-up ‘spare’ batteries to keep it powered for two weeks, or utilize an off-grid recharging method such as a hand-crank, efficient solar, or an adapter which makes it possible to connect the radio to a 12-volt battery which has been removed from a vehicle. Or, an external hand-crank or solar device designed for charging batteries.
Selecting Optional Features for Your Emergency Radio
Having a radio that can receive broadcasts from commercial radio stations on the AM and FM bands, in addition to the NWR/NOAA broadcasts, is extremely helpful during an emergency situation. Local radio stations may be off the air, but a station which is located outside the disaster zone might still be a valuable source of news and information. Therefore, a multipurpose emergency radio which also includes AM/FM bands, provides a clear advantage.
For emergencies of extended duration, and for non-weather emergencies of all sorts, a radio capable of receiving international broadcasts (shortwave radio) presents yet another advantage. Unfortunately, most lower-cost hand-crank radios which receive AM/FM/SW/WS (NWR/NOAA), provide minimal access to shortwave (SW) frequencies, but some access is better than none.
Some emergency-style radio brand/models claim to be able to receive the audio of television broadcasts, police and fire department activity, and airline or airport frequencies. Though this sounds impressive, these claims are generally false. Though this was possible a decade ago, today most government broadcasts are digital and encrypted, making it impossible for the general public to receive these broadcasts without sophisticated equipment.
Having the ability to re-charge your cellular telephone through your emergency radio may be a life saver. For some people, this will be an important feature. However, there are other methods for recharging a cell phone.
Note: During a terrorist incident or times of social unrest, the government will likely turn-off the cellular network, or block civilian use of the system. So don’t count on communicating via cellular phone, text messaging or Internet during certain types of disasters.
Also, during extreme weather incidents, cellular towers are often damaged, making cell phone use impossible or coverage spotty. Moreover, since cellular systems often operate at near capacity routinely, high-demand during an emergency will quickly overwhelm the system.
Don’t count on a cellular phone’s radio app or news app, either. These will not work if the cellular network is inoperable. So don’t depend on a mobile phone for communication, or news gathering, during an emergency situation.
Radios for GO-Bags
Our recommendation is that every GO-Bag (aka/ Bug-Out Bag, GOOD Bag, Evacuation Knapsack) be equipped with a small, lightweight AA or AAA-battery powered radio which is capable of receiving AM/FM/SW/WS (NWR/NOAA) broadcasts.
Earbuds (small in-ear headphones) should be stored with the radio, since battery life can be greatly extended by using earbuds. Plus when using earbuds, a small radio can be quietly used while on the move, and it can also deliver clear audio even in a noisy environment.
Keep a Cyalume Light Stick (aka / Snap-Light, Chem Light, Glow Stick), or an inexpensive flashlight with batteries installed, stored in an outside pocket of your GO-Bag. During hours of darkness, this light source will help you install batteries into both your radio and better-quality flashlight. If your emergency situation occurs at night, a Cyalume light (or inexpensive flashlight specifically designed for emergency use and long-term storage), can be used to quickly find items stored in your knapsack.
As to quantity of batteries, a GO-Bag should be equipped with at least two extra sets of batteries for each radio, flashlight and important electronic device. For radio use at home and work, a sufficient quantity of batteries should be stored to facilitate 2-weeks of radio operation. Or, an off-grid smart charger and sufficient quantity of rechargeable batteries, to power your radio and essential devices for two weeks.
Selecting flashlights and other electronic devices which use the same type of battery provides a major logistical advantage. If your radio, flashlights and other electronics use the same type/size of battery, you can share extras if that becomes necessary.
Be sure to store your emergency radio and one set of batteries, inside a plastic container with padding, and then put the container in a Zip-lock bag to help protect it from damage. When you’re in the midst of a situation but not currently using your radio, return it to the Zip-lock bag and protective container.
For long-term radio and electronics storage, the best solution may be a heavy duty heat-sealed Mylar bag and desiccant packet, in addition to a Zip-lock bag and plastic container. The sealed Mylar bag and desiccant will protect your electronics from atmospheric moisture, as well as exposure to leaky food and beverage bottles, rain and floods.
Since Mylar bags are generally one-time-use containers, also utilize a Zip-lock bag. After you have torn open the Mylar to retrieve your radio, the Zip-lock bag can be used to provide some water protection, and a rigid plastic container can be used to further protect the radio from damage caused by accidental drops.
In an emergency situation, between uses of your important electronics, it is still prudent to protect these items from accidental damage. For more on safe storage, and easy do-it-yourself tips on Mylar packaging, Click Here.
Emergency Radios for Home and Work
In addition to a GO-Bag emergency radio, your vehicles, home and office should all have a more substantial portable emergency radio. These larger radios should also be equipped with an external antenna. (An attached telescoping antenna is the most common, but other types of external antennas can be even more effective in pulling-in distant radio stations).
These radios should also be equipped with a hand crank (or in sunny climates, an external solar panel), in addition to having extra Lithium rechargeable batteries on hand.
Even if your home or workplace has an emergency generator, these usually produce unfiltered electrical power, so they may damage sensitive electronics. It’s therefore better to operate your emergency radio using battery power. Use the generator to power a separate smart-charger unit to re-charge your radio’s batteries, not to run your radio.
Warning: Never store batteries in your radio or electronic devices. Batteries can leak acid or corrode, causing damage. Batteries stored in an electronic device for more than a month or two, can render it inoperable.
Rather than store your equipment with batteries installed, it is much safer to store batteries in their own container. Yet, it is important to keep at least one set of batteries handy, so that you are able to quickly install batteries and make your radio operational. So be sure to include a container of fresh batteries in your radio bag.
Consider using duct tape, rubber bands, plastic wrap, or some other method to securely attach a set of batteries to the outside of your radio (and your other battery-powered equipment). This makes it possible for you to quickly insert the batteries and use the device, while still protecting your equipment from damage caused by in-device battery storage.
Over time, most disposable batteries, including the better-quality Alkaline and Lithium types, will leak if installed in a radio, flashlight, or other battery-powered device. Short-term storage is fine, no problem. However, long-term storage of a device with batteries installed, will generally damage the device, often rendering it unusable at a time when it is needed the most.
It may seem odd, but the same batteries stored separately, rarely leak or corrode. Nevertheless, it is still a good idea to wrap batteries in plastic wrap, a small Zip-lock bag which keeps them tight together, or a small plastic battery box (above photo) made for that size battery.
When packaging batteries, store them in a manner which keeps the poles of the batteries from touching each other, and also keeps the poles of the batteries from coming into contact with anything which might drain them of their energy.
A plastic box designed to store batteries is not essential. Three layers of plastic wrap, or electrical tape, is usually sufficient to protect standard AA, AAA, C or D-cell batteries.
Alkaline and Lithium batteries are the most stable disposable batteries, and they provide longer operating life than standard batteries. So unless you have the money to buy exotic batteries, Alkaline and Lithium batteries the best choice for emergency kits. (Lithium batteries are generally more expensive than Alkaline, but they will last longer.)
Rechargeable Batteries and Battery Chargers
If you intend to recharge your batteries (a good idea) rather than use disposable batteries, Lithium rechargeable batteries are generally the longest-lasting consumer battery.
Note: You cannot safely recharge disposable batteries. When in doubt, read the label. Rechargeable batteries are always labeled as being rechargeable.
When it comes to selecting a charger to re-power your rechargeable batteries, make sure it is designed for use with the various size batteries you intend to recharge, and the type of rechargeable battery you want to use (i.e. Lithium Rechargeable, etc.). Importantly, though sometimes a bit more expensive, a “smart” charger will do a far better job of recharging your batteries.
A smart charger will condition your batteries during the recharging process, will protect them from overcharging which can be dangerous, and will enable the batteries to power your device as much as 30% longer. Plus, a smart charger gives your batteries 200-300% longer life (recharge cycles).
A smart charger is well worth the added expense. Some models can be used using multiple power sources: 110/220-volts and 12-volt power, while others, like the “10 Guide Plus” made by GoalZero, are bundled with compatible solar panels for recharging.
A radio without power is useless, as is a radio which is unusable due to poor storage, so don’t neglect these concerns when preparing your GO-Bag and emergency kit radios. Further, a radio you don’t know how to use is of minimal value, so learn how to use your radio now, before the emergency situation. Even if you are familiar with the operation of your radio, pack the instruction manual with your radio, inside its protected long-term storage packaging.