Company builds weather radio for Plain communities

— Raychel Sanner on Unsplash

If people don’t have access to technology during a weather emergency, how do they know to take cover or evacuate? The simple answer for Jane Marie Wix, of the National Weather Service in Kentucky, is simple: they don’t.

“This is a dangerous situation that we didn’t fully understand and see until we started putting puzzle pieces together in September 2021,” she explained. “We encountered a representative of Midland [maker of current weather radios used in the United States] and asked if they had a weather radio that didn’t include an AM/FM radio or that needed to be plugged in. And the answer was no.”

However, Midland was willing to look at the options and is working with a group of concerned experts from across the country and representatives of Plain communities. Traction is inching forward to the creation of a radio that makes sense — Plain sense.

The ability to reach those in the Plain community who may not have a cell phone and who do not utilize radios or televisions became a battle cry for the group. Looking back to past storms in the greater-Kentucky area, Wix noted that the need for early warning is very real, and the Plain communities are simply underserved.

Holmes County Emergency Management Agency Director Jason Troyer noted that there are about 21 tornadoes in Ohio alone each year on average. Last year, though, over 60 were reported. Situations in the heart of the Plain population in Holmes County, Ohio, brought the need to offer early warning to the forefront for Troyer and the Holmes County Commissioners.

Troyer recently reported to Commissioners about the work being done by Midland and the National Weather Service in Kentucky. The Weather Awareness for a Rural Nation initiative will have a primary focus on helping the Amish population by notifying them about weather in their area.

The prototype radio is simple. It has neither AM and FM bands nor a USB port. Instead, it has a solar panel as well as a hand crank and a battery backup that can be used to turn it on. The radio can be utilized by the Plain communities, but also by those who are camping or boating and not able to reach a cell network.

Troyer and Wix both noted that Midland is working to make the project a reality. The hope is that grant funding can help put the units into production.

Troyer noted that he is looking at grants to purchase the units once they have been produced to get them into the hands of Amish families in Holmes County. He explained that a tragedy is at the heart of the development: an Amish family’s four children were killed when they were swept away by flood waters in April 2020.

That tragic event, as well as a deadly tornado in 2021, made apparent the need to find a way to share pertinent weather information with everyone — not just those who adopt the latest technology. “Some people know if a tornado is coming if the sirens can be heard in their community,” Wix noted. “But what about those who don’t have a siren they can hear?”

Troyer asked the same thing. He noted that because Holmes County’s Amish population is around 49 percent of the county’s estimated 44,000 people, he will do whatever he can to support the program.

One key to the radio working well is its ability to screen warnings. This means that a tornado warning for Holmes County will not be heard on a radio in Nashville and vice versa. All warnings will be as hyper local as possible.

Wix and her team talked with Bruce Jones of Midland about getting the most basic weather radio into production. Currently Midland is working the kinks out of the prototype. It is based on the EF-40 model that Midland currently distributes. The unit will have a button that owners can use to get the most up to date forecast each day at 10:00 am.

The gray-colored unit is something Jones feels will be accepted in the most conservative Plain communities. “Our goal is to give them a weather radio that fits with their traditions,” he said. But [we] also [want to] give them access to the warnings issued by the National Weather Service so we can cut down on flash flood and tornado fatalities.”

The Young Center of Anabaptist and Pietist Studies in Elizabethtown, Pa., estimates that Ohio’s Amish population was about 84,000 in 2023.

A longer version of article appeared in The Budget, Closer Look section, on January 10. Used with permission.

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