What the best weather radio has
- Public Alert certification. Weather radios that are Public Alert certified meet voluntary standards developed in cooperation with the National Weather Service (NWS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for performance and user friendliness.
- SAME technology. Weather broadcasts often cover a wide region, and Specific Alert Message Encoding (SAME) lets you program your weather radio to sound an alert only for warnings intended for your specific area.
- An audible alarm. With this feature, the radio will emit a loud tone when an alert is received, even if the audio is off.
- Selective alert blocking. This feature lets you turn off alerts for non-life-threatening weather events, so you won't be awakened at night for an emergency that isn't relevant.
- Multiple power sources. At a minimum, you need battery backup to keep your weather radio running during a power outage and AC power to preserve the batteries at other times. The best emergency radios will have extra power sources like a hand crank, solar panel or car charger to make it easier to keep the radio running during a prolonged situation where AC power is off and batteries have been used up.
- For emergency radios, a cellphone charger. On many crank radios, you can plug in your cellphone and charge it up at least enough for at least a brief call or a text message.
Know before you go
Do you live in an area that's prone to severe weather? A weather radio is useful wherever you live, but if you live in a region that's prone to hurricanes, tornados or other extreme storms, it can be a literal lifesaver. In this situation, it makes sense to choose a weather radio with a strong reputation for durability and ease of use. It's also more important to have selective alert blocking, since being constantly peppered with irrelevant alerts might lead you to switch the radio off, defeating its entire purpose.
Do you need a weather radio or an emergency radio? A weather radio warns you -- hopefully well in advance -- of an impending weather (or other) event. An emergency radio, by contrast, is designed to see you through an event, especially situations where the power is out. Emergency radios often lack SAME technology and aren't Public Alert certified, so they aren't ideal as primary source of weather alerts. If you live in an area that often sees extreme storms, it may make sense to have both.
Are prolonged power outages common where you live? In any emergency, counting on electrical power is a bad idea. However, batteries can only keep you going for so long. If you live in an area where the power tends to stay out for days at a time, a crank-powered emergency radio can provide a lifeline. Some can also charge a cellphone, a huge benefit for those who might otherwise have no way to seek help.
What kind of radio reception do you get? Most weather and emergency radios have a built-in, extendable "whip" antenna. However, in areas where receiving National Weather Service broadcasts can be a challenge, you may need to add an external antenna. A radio with an external antenna jack will allow you to hook up a larger antenna either indoors or outdoors. You can buy antennas in nearly any store with an electronics department—or use these plans from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to make your own.
Does anyone in your home have special needs? For users who are deaf or hearing impaired, an audible alarm won't work. If your radio has an external device jack, you can plug in special devices such as strobe lights or bed shakers to enhance the built-in alarm. All Public Alert-certified radios for institutional use have this feature, but it's optional on consumer radios.