Some thoughts on HF-Radio Weather Broadcasts
The USCG has recently asked for comments regarding the future needs for HF-radio broadcast weather services (voice, fax and SITOR). This has raised some alarm ("They are trying to shut down weathefax again!") but in reality the Coast Guard is simply asking for our help. Nothing lasts forever and they need to replace the transmitters that are used to send the weather broadcasts. It's a big expense and the folks who control the money want confirmation that, in fact, this stuff is important and gets used.
Why are weather broadcasts important when there are other sources? Because every other source available to offshore sailors depends on the internet, and NWS (National Weather Service) themselves do not officially support internet distribution of weather.
We'll explain in more detail below, but this is not a case where a simple protest will carry much weight. The Coast Guard needs to justify a large expenditure and needs our help doing that. So folks, if we believe that weather information is important then let's take the time to do this right. And broadcast weather IS important, no matter how you are currently getting your weather forecasts.
A copy of the notice and request for comments may be found at:
(Scroll down to "High Frequency (HF) Radio Broadcasts...", bottom of the right-hand column).
A text version, suitable for fetching via low-speed connections (and formatted to "fit your screen"), is on the Saildocs server at:
or get a copy via email by sending a (blank) email to: email@example.com
And a copy of this article (with any updates) is at:
or via email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Note that the notice contains a series of specific questions. This is a test... to be effective, a submission needs to answer the questions. This serves two purposes- to qualify the person making the comments, and to make sure that USCG gets all of the information that they need. So as tempting as it is to simply write "OF COURSE THIS IS IMPORTANT YOU IDIOTS", take the time to also answer the questions. The particular format is not important but making specific reference to each question is important-- either quote the question followed by your answer, or at at a minimum number your paragraphs to match the question-numbers and then incorporate the question into your answer. ("My position in the maritime community is that of a full-time sailor, my wife and I live aboard and travel extensively aboard yaketta yaketta"). Remember that you are speaking to bureaucrats who are familiar with maritime weather but not the peculiarities of your lifestyle.
Some important points: They don't want duplicate comments, so take the time to write one careful, complete response. And whatever else you write, do answer the questions because that will make your comments much more meaningful. Explain who you are, how you make use of weather, and why broadcast weather is important. Simply saying "I use this service and do not wish to see it eliminated" is frankly not very compelling. You get one chance to comment, maximize its effectiveness. (If you already submitted an incomplete comment, then submit an additional comment but make specific reference to your previous comment. Start with something like "I would like to add to my comment of May XX, 2007".
So why should we care about broadcast weather if we get grib-files via Sailmail or Winlink? Even if you do not routinely use broadcast weather (voice, wefax or SITOR broadcasts), you need it. Why? Because every other source depends on the internet to get data from NWS, and the internet is not part the NWS operational data system. It is sort of a Catch-22: the weather service tells us that HF broadcast weather is the only "official" and reliable way that we can get weather offshore, and then USCG tells us that we need to justify it. OK, we can do that.
Here is what NWS has to say about the internet:
"The Internet is not part of the National Weather Service's operational data stream and should never be relied upon as a means to obtain the latest forecast and warning data. Become familiar with and use other means such as NOAA Weather Radio to obtain the latest forecasts and warnings".
Why is that? Simply that NWS has no control over the internet. If the internet connections go down then the data will not be available, and NWS has no way to fix it. Nor do they have any control over whatever network you might use to access that data. It is a complex network, and complex networks have a habit of breaking when you need them most.
The importance of broadcast weather is that it is the simplest-possible link to get weather data to you from the weather service. NWS sends it direct to USCG who broadcasts it, and all you need is a shortwave-receiver to get the voice broadcasts. To get a weather chart you need a fax receiver, or a computer with a sound-card connection to the radio, no fancy modem. It doesn't get any simpler than that, and simplicity = reliability.
So even if you routinely get charts and computer-model grib's via radio-email or a sat-phone, HF broadcast weather is every bit as important to you as it is to the folks who use nothing else. Broadcast weather is the only operational source of US weather that is available to offshore sailors, and weather information is an important component of maritime safety, therefore if you are an offshore sailor (i.e. out of range of the NOAA VHF weather radio) then it is a very important component of YOUR maritime safety no matter what else you might have available.
So don't hesitate to say that even though you don't routinely use SITOR (radio teletype) text broadcasts to get the warnings and forecasts, it is critically important because what you are using - e.g. weather via email by satphone- depends on the internet which is not an operational system. The only operational systems available to you for getting warnings and forecasts are the USCG HF-radio broadcasts. Similarly with fax charts, you can get those as graphics-image files via satphone or Winlink (dollars or time permitting), but again those depend on internet and are not considered operational by NWS.
When it comes to charts there is also a rather large issue of efficiency. Each weather chart sent via radio-fax takes 10 minutes to send to many thousands of users. If each chart were delivered via radio-email, then it would require 5-20 min's per chart, PER USER. And realistically, to get a proper look at the weather requires half a dozen charts a day (Analysis, 24, 48, 96-hour progs, 500mb prog, wind/wave charts, 00 and 12z updates, etc). Do the math- there aren't enough stations, or enough bandwidth, or enough hours in the day to do make that work for very many users. In theory it can be done via sat-phone for a few bucks a day, but again the math doesn't work if everyone needs a half-dozen charts every day. (Had any problems getting a sat-phone connection lately?)
So here are some suggestions:
1. Answer the questions, it will establish your credibility and provide context for your comments.
2. Point out that while there are other means of getting weather information, those are internet-based, require more complex equipment, and are not considered operational by NWS. Consider mentioning that for those outside the range of the NOAA VHF radio network, the USCG broadcasts are currently the ONLY operational means of getting weather information.
3. It may also be worth mentioning that, operational status aside, alternative means of getting information (e.g. radio email, satellite phones) involve much more complex systems at both ends and have many more points of failure.
4. Also point out the inherent efficiency of "broadcasting" the same information to large numbers of users simultaneously.
Comments can be submitted online, mailed, sent by fax, or delivered in person. Whatever you do, write up your comments offline using Word or some other word-processor, do not attempt to compose your comments online.
To submit your comments online, go to http://dms.dot.gov and click on "Simple Search". Enter the docket# 27656 and click "Search". You will see a list of submitted comments, the first one is a copy of the official notice from the USCG (same as the link above). You can read the other comments if you wish, but they are mostly an exercise of how NOT to respond- most do not answer the questions, do not explain the submitter's role in the maritime community, and do not explain why the broadcast services are important. There are a few good examples, e.g. #22, but most are useless.
Folks, we can do better and we MUST do better if we want to continue to get weather.
To file online, first write your submission in Word or your favorite word-processor, with no fancy formatting, this is plain-text. Then go to the "http://dms.dot.gov/" website above, click on "Comment/Submissions", click "Continue" and fill in the details. (Be complete and tell the truth, it is only your government- perfectly harmless). Docket# is 27656 and "Operating Administration" is USCG. The docket exists, the title is "High Frequency (HF) Radio Broadcasts of Marine Weather Forecasts and Warnings". Then click "Continue", and you will see the comments box. Go back to your word-processor, select all of the text, copy it to the clipboard and paste it into the comments box. Review it, fix anything needed, and click "submit". You can also attach a file if you want, but my suggestion is to keep the formatting simple and stick to plain text.