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What's a weather radio, and why do you need one?

The term "weather radio" actually has two different meanings. First, weather radio is a service provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that puts out a constant stream of updates about upcoming weather events and other emergencies. In addition to weather, NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) issues alerts about natural disasters such as earthquakes and avalanches, environmental events such as oil spills, and public safety emergencies, including 911 service outages and Amber Alerts about abducted children. These messages go out on seven VHF frequencies specifically reserved for them, so you can't pick them up on a standard AM/FM radio. That leads to the second meaning of the term: A weather radio is any device capable of receiving these NWR broadcasts. When a natural disaster is on the way, a weather radio can make the difference between being trapped and making it to safety.

A desktop weather radio costs around $50. It can be plugged into an outlet most of the time and supplemented with backup batteries if the power goes out during an emergency. In addition to their NWR function, most weather radios can double as AM/FM radios or alarm clocks. If you're listening to music when an NWR alert comes in, the radio will automatically interrupt the broadcast to give you the news. To keep your listening from being interrupted with alerts that don't affect you, the best weather radios include a feature called Specific Alert Message Encoding (SAME). With SAME, you can elect to hear only the alerts that apply to your specific location. Some weather radios also let you filter out alerts that are of no interest -- such as a frost warning for someone who lives in the city. Cutting down on irrelevant alerts helps make sure that you pay attention to the ones that could directly affect you.

One specialized type of weather radio is the emergency radio, usually priced around $45. While a standard weather radio informs you about emergencies as they develop, an emergency radio helps you keep abreast of the situation while it's in progress. Most of these radios can run off battery power for a couple of hours or longer, but also include crank-driven generators that can keep them running during a prolonged power outage when no batteries can be found. Most crank radios cover standard AM and FM bands, as well as the weather bands, and some include extra features such as a flashlight and a cellphone charger. These features can be lifesavers during emergencies, but they're also useful for more pleasant occasions, such as camping or hiking trips. However, most crank radios do not include features like SAME or selectable alerts.

To identify the best weather radios and emergency radios, we considered four major factors. First, we looked at performance. The most important consideration here was how clearly and consistently the NWR alerts come through, but we also looked at factors like AM/FM reception, sound quality and battery life. Next, we considered features that improve usability, such as SAME and selectable alerts, or add extra functions, such as a clock radio or a cellphone charger. Third, we evaluated ease of use, including the ease of setting up the radio to receive alerts for your area. And finally, we looked at overall value, factoring in price, durability and customer service. We looked at a few expert reviews, but most of our information comes from users who can provide first-hand accounts of how a weather radio performs when it is needed most -- before and during an actual emergency.

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