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What Kind of Emergency Radio Do You Need in a Disaster?

Lainie has completed training for her local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and is concerned about all things preparedness.

A hand-crank or battery-operated emergency radio could help keep you and yours informed and ready to act during a disaster situation.

A hand-crank or battery-operated emergency radio could help keep you and yours informed and ready to act during a disaster situation.

Disaster Preparedness: Older Technology For the Win

During a recent conversation with an acquaintance, I mentioned my concern that many people no longer own battery-operated radios, and would thus be cut off from essential information during a disaster.

He looked puzzled, "But don't we get that information over our phones now?"

"Yes, as long as the cell towers still work, your phone has juice, and the power grid is still functioning," I replied. He quickly agreed that having a radio might be a good idea after all.

Mobile emergency notifications are great, but older technology, such as radio, has an essential role in community disaster management. When communication systems and power grids fail, battery-powered radios, particularly those with a hand crank or solar charging options, continue to work.

What Information Can You Get From a Radio During a Disaster?

In an emergency, staying informed is crucial if you are going to make good decisions. Here are the types of information that a radio can provide:

  • What's going on: Not all disasters or impending disasters are obvious. Radio reports let you know what is happening.
  • Related issues: Emergencies sometimes beget emergencies. A weather emergency could lead to power outages. This could lead to other problems, such as civil disorder or illnesses.
  • Official instructions: Because of the unpredictable and chaotic nature of some disasters and emergencies, it's difficult to know what to do. Radio broadcasts include official instructions from emergency-management authorities.
  • Evacuation warnings: A radio broadcast can tell you if an evacuation is necessary or under consideration. Advance notice gives you time to pack and plan a travel route.
  • Local resources: Radio broadcasts tell you how to access local resources, such as food, clean water, or applications for disaster aid.
  • Expert perspectives: Interviews with local authorities, first responders, and charity executives provide insight into what is going on in your area.
  • Morale-boosting media: Your radio also provides a connection to the outside world. Hearing other people, along with music or other entertainment, can keep your spirits up.
Having access to a specialized radio during an emergency situation can keep you and your family informed as you make critical decisions.

Having access to a specialized radio during an emergency situation can keep you and your family informed as you make critical decisions.

Battery and Crank Radios for Weather Alerts and Emergencies

Disaster agencies always recommend including a battery-operated radio in your emergency kit. Most radios are standard battery-operated models designed for entertainment but not necessarily as disaster management tools. If you already have one of these radios in your home, hang on to it and buy some extra batteries. It's always good to have backup equipment. But there are better options available. Below are descriptions of each type of disaster radio and how they work.

Weather Radios

Weather radios offer access to NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards stations, which provide official information about weather conditions as well as advisories, watches, and warnings about weather and non-weather disasters and emergencies.

These radios may be powered by batteries, a rechargeable battery pack, or standard electricity. Some models offer more than one power option.

Weather-Alert Radios

A weather-alert radio operates like a smoke detector. When a weather or non-weather advisory, watch, or warning is reported, the radio signals you via sound, flashing lights, or both. You can then tune in to receive information. Some models can be connected to adaptive devices for people with a hearing impairment.

Because of their need for consistent power, many weather-alert radios must be plugged into an electrical power source, though many have a battery backup feature. This makes these radios less useful in situations where the power is out for a long time. On the plus side, keeping the radio plugged in means that it stays put and you won't have to hunt it down in an emergency.

If you do opt to purchase a model that requires constant power, consider purchasing an emergency radio that can be operated using a hand-crank as a back-up if the power goes down.

This is the Midland weather-alert radio I have in my home. It sits in my foyer, plugged into an outlet, so I always know where it is. If an emergency happens, I'll get the information I need.

The radio is programmable, so you can shut off alerts for some events (though this isn’t possible for major disaster warnings, such as tornadoes). You can also indicate how you want to be alerted—via the display lighting up, a loud alert sound, or the alert sound followed by the radio broadcast for the next three minutes.

The WR 120 does not include AM/FM reception. If you want a weather radio that also offers AM/FM programming, you'll want the Midland WR400 or WR300. Another nifty feature is the “batteries are failing” alert. Twice, I've forgotten to plug the adapter back in after moving the radio so that I could do some cleaning. The obnoxious noise coming from the radio alerted me to the situation so that I could replace the batteries.

As for performance, we've been mercifully disaster-free since I got the radio, but there was a blizzard warning in late November. The alert went off and the NOAA broadcast provided me with detailed information about what to expect.

Tip: It is available in both box and clamshell packaging. You can save significant money by choosing the clamshell.

Emergency Radios

Emergency radios are designed for use during a power outage. These units feature multiple power options, including hand-crank charging, solar charging, USB charging, AC or DC wall charging, and AA or AAA batteries

You'll want a radio that offers a hand-crank power option in addition to standard batteries or wall/USB charging. In a major disaster, power may be out for a long time, and batteries will be precious.

Emergency radios often include other features, including a flashlight, emergency siren, and power bank. Read the product description to ensure that it offers the features you want. Here are some emergency radio features worth paying attention to:

  • Size: Emergency radios come in a range of sizes. Some are quite small and could easily fit in a handbag. Others are significantly larger. If portability is a concern, check a radio’s dimensions before buying it.
  • Power bank: Some emergency radios offer a power bank option that allows you to use a USB cord to charge mobile devices.
  • Station options: In addition to AM and FM, you may want to select a radio that offers access to NOAA weather stations or even shortwave. Weather stations take priority over shortwave, though the latter may be helpful in serious, long-term disasters in which local radio towers are severely damaged.
  • Emergency alert: Radios that have access to NOAA stations may also have an alert feature that you can toggle on or off.
  • Headset jack: Some emergency radios have a headset jack so that you can listen to the radio without disturbing people around you.
  • Power options: The more, the better. Keep in mind that the rechargeable battery in your radio that you can power up using solar, hand crank, or USB charging may eventually fail. Being able to power up using a wall adapter or standard batteries could well be a lifesaver.
  • Digital vs. analog tuning: This is largely a matter of personal preference, although many people find that digital tuning makes it easier to find weather and shortwave stations. The flip side is that an analog tuner may be less likely to malfunction than a digital one.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2019 Lainie Petersen


Besarien from South Florida on July 01, 2019:

We used our hand crank radio during the last hurricane. It was our window on the outside world. It was also good exercise! on January 30, 2019:

Excellent article. Well written, and from such a pretty face

Lainie Petersen (author) from Chicago on January 21, 2019:


Thank you for your kind words. I was pretty shocked myself when I realized that I didn't have a radio at home and would have been lost without it! I also appreciate your personal testimony as to the importance of having a radio when the power goes down. It's sometimes hard to remember that things like this happen, which is why I wanted to write about the importance of old-school radios!

Thanks again!

RTalloni on January 21, 2019:

It really is important to have a portable old school radio on hand. Thanks for a look at the options. Finding a solar powered one that can be wound up for a bit of power as well as used via battery is something we've had for a while. Used it when power went out due to ice storm. It might be a good idea to update it as things do deteriorate over time. Thanks for adding that tip. Thanks too for not framing this in an end of the world shocker. Who needs one then?!