They Call Me Mister FIPS

After our recent meteorological adventure in which we were suddenly ambushed by Our Perfect Storm, we realized we needed to make some changes. Our “Gee dear, does that storm look like it’s heading this way to you?” weather monitoring system needed an upgrade, and we had the technology onboard to easily do something about it.

Thumbing through the manual for our VHF radio, I learned that it was SAME capable. SAME, or Specific Area Message Encoder, is a feature on many radios that allows you to receive specially encoded area–specific weather broadcasts from the National Weather Service.  With your radio in weather alert mode, when NOAA broadcasts a weather alert, such as a Severe Thunderstorm Warning, that’s encoded for your geographic area, an alarm goes off on the radio, and it automatically switches to the relevant weather channel. If you happen to be gamming it up on channel 69 talking to another boat about the fish you just caught, it will rudely interrupt you and direct your attention to more important things, such as the funnel cloud headed your way.

NOAA encodes these alerts by county, identified by Federal Information Processing System (FIPS) codes. To make it all work, you have to go the National Weather Service’s website and look up the FIPS codes for your geographic area, You then program these numbers into your radio (check your manual for the procedure). In our case, we programmed in the FIPS codes for Escambia and Santa Rosa counties in Florida and Baldwin county in Alabama. For now, that’s our primary cruising area. In the future, we’ll want to actively manage this list. Our radio is capable of storing up to ten FIPS codes, and we’ll want to add the ones for new cruising areas we enter, and delete the ones for those we’ve left behind.

Making it all work takes two steps. First, the VHF radio has to be on. We always have it on while underway (it’s not just a choice, it’s the law!), but until now we’ve generally turned it off as soon as we anchor. That’s about to change. The minimal draw on the battery to leave the radio on is worth the extra security it will provide. The second step is to push the little Weather Alert button whenever we power on the radio. I’ve tested it, and while our VHF will remember what channel was last used and return to it when next powered up, it doesn’t remember being in Weather Alert mode. We’ll have to set it each time. One more item for our pre-underway list.


With the help of some FIPS codes, this button becomes very useful.

While a bit light hearted, none of this is meant to be funny. With three bodies now recovered and two people still missing, the unexpected storm that suddenly swept through on April 25th has resulted in the largest loss of life during a sailing regatta in US history. At least if there’s a next time, we’ll have some warning.


Care To Share Your Thoughts?