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If and When It Gets Really Bad

Charles “Buc” Fitch is a frequent contributor to Radio World.

Tornados. Earthquakes. Tsunamis. Hurricanes.

Events of this magnitude, abroad and at home, remind us that when catastrophes happen, we generally don’t handle them well. It doesn’t take much to break down our systems of civilization.

As a personal observation, I contrast us in the United States with the citizenry of Japan. That country has a populace of resilient, disciplined people of action. After their recent natural disasters, for the most part they suffered, persevered and got on with rescue and recovery.

Here, we seem to have a notable contingent of whiners who don’t seem to be able to do much for themselves but complain. Add in a brew of inept leadership that makes decisions on a CYA basis and those who want to attach “rescue and recovery” to a profit motive, and we could easily end up with Katrina redux in spite of the hard lessons we’ve learned.

We cannot do much about the cows around us, the goofballs in the Middle East and “paralysis by analysis” that we find inside the D.C. beltway. But we can do something about getting our stations in order and readiness to do our part — a very important part, a part of immense value — when we get hit by “the next big thing.”

Experienced, sagely thinkers like Larry Titus, John Bisset and other RW contributors have logged in about preparation in previous articles. I’d like to add my experience to this litany with an emphasis on Big Disaster Planning.

The first time I really got into this weighty issue was in 1970 when I attended disaster planning meetings on the Big Island of Hawaii. We were one of only four radio stations on the island.

We recognized the following emergency events that could seriously affect the populace, in descending order:

Violent volcanic eruption with resulting unpredictable lava flows
Pestilence (this included plague, rampant disease, water quality issues, etc.)
Invasion (including fallout)

(Pestilence was not a joke but a real fear. When you’re on an island, you’re in an incubator. Half the indigenous Hawaiian population had been wiped out by diseases brought by missionaries.)

We focused on ways to keep our civilization running if weather or lava took out power generation, road connections, airport operations, communication microwave systems to the other islands, port facilities and the phone cable to the mainland.

Our station was near clear channel on 850, but the transmitter and studio were right on the water — definitely in the line of any tsunami that might come in our direction.

Given our modest resources, this is what we decided should be done:

-First, since the warning time for a major water inundation event was limited, the word “tsunami” would never be used on air except in the context of emergency announcements, period. The word was off-limits for humor, as a comparative, in advertising as a superlative and the like. We wanted people to pay attention when they heard the word “tsunami.”

-PSAs and issue programming would focus on how warnings for all events would be issued and what people should do in response to those warnings. What reasonable preparations should be accomplished in advance? How many gallons of potable water per person in the household should be kept on hand, batteries for radios, etc.?

-On the station side, we would evacuate along with everyone else, and move outside the tsunami impact zone and above the high wave level of previous hurricanes.

-The station would continue running with program input from the Civil Defense (remember CD?) emergency offices via dialup POTS. That would be my new duty post. Since the entire phone system in Hilo was hardwire DC with central battery, the phone system could run on for nearly two days without power; and if we were lucky enough for our radio station to stay on, our battery-powered mixer could provide program output for that period.

-If the radio station was wiped out, we all had backup assignments. I was to report to the chief engineer of the phone company to help in the restoration of their radio links.

Forty years later, circumstances are different all over the radio industry. For instance, almost every station has generators.

Generators are fine, but they need fuel, protection and maintenance. An important element of generator maintenance is weekly exercise.

When you buy your generator or put it in the next station budget, include the option that provides a visible front-panel signal and contact closure for remote use if the generator fails its weekly exercise so you will know immediately if there is a problem. An alternative is to have a line on your site visit/walk around log for run hours so you can recognize if the generator is not exercising.

Other helpful accessory options for your generator include a contact closure float switch on the fuel source tank so that you are alerted when the fuel tank is something like half empty. In an upcoming article in RWEE on remote controls we’ll describe how to use this closure to page the fuel company to fill up the tank automatically.

Not all battery chargers are the same. Another important generator option is the “pulse-type” trickle charger so that the battery is “massaged” to a full charge and not fried out by the charger.

Starting in cold weather is a challenge for even the best generators so follow the recommendations of the manufacturer for block or sump oil heaters to maximize the probability that your generator will start in sub-zero weather. Again, our remote control article will discuss how to control these heaters using the RCS and how to have status alerts issued.

This winter, several generators in the Northeast did not start or stalled quickly because of icing on input air/cooling louvers, exhaust stacks, fuel lines, blown fuses on heaters, dead batteries, etc. Professional generators, like all components of a high-quality electrical system, are “low maintenance,” not “no maintenance.” So keep a careful check on these units.

Occasionally, through good luck and brief demand, the first time the generator is needed for days is in the only BIG EVENT that might happen just once in a decade. The number one system error that I have encountered in 50 years of this work is that the fuel pump (or some other critical item) is placed on the non-generator supply panel. The engine starts and runs several hours but runs out of fuel because the fuel in the big tank cannot be transferred into the day tank!

In one instance the operation of a major station came to an abrupt haul when the 275-gallon inside day tank ran dry and the 2,000 gallons outside was inaccessible.

The character of many disasters could possible leave your transmitter intact and the studio or the connection from the studio to the transmitter out of action. Do you have a way to get programming into your transmitter other than the normal STL?

A POTS control system of my design can put a regular POTS line on air. In the day and age of cellular, you might make this phone a cell (the adapters that make a cell phone to mimic a POTS line cost about $100) since experience has shown us that the cell system most likely will hang together longer than the dialup network now that the central office architecture went the way of the dodo.

With this POTS on-air feature your studio/program source can be anywhere such as an alternate local studio, another station’s studios, emergency command offices and even while you’re on the move evacuating. I hope to publish details in RW at some point, but in the meantime feel free to e-mail me for it.

In a future post I’ll address “hardening” the studio for disaster including expanding our information connections so that we can use reports from ham operators, TV sources, etc.