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Commentary: Reconsidering Minot and EAS

Author Says Emergency Managers and Corporate Radio Are Both to Blame for Failures in EAS

Author Says Emergency Managers and Corporate Radio Are Both to Blame for Failures in EAS

This article is derived from a broader study that considered the implications of the localism of commercial radio on the Emergency Alert System. Using a naturalistic design, the research began with a survey of the train derailment that occurred in Minot, N.D., on Jan. 18, 2002. The event became the model for this research, and as the study emerged the role of the EAS was evaluated in other rail accidents with similar characteristics as those found at Minot.

The Minot derailment is unique in that it brought the use of the EAS to the attention of the public, especially since issues of localism and de-regulation have collectively made the news. Furthermore, previous scientific studies have been conducted of this event and, thus, are open to further testing.

Failure to communicate

The Minot accident has become the quintessential model of the failure of a public warning system. In addition to the dispatch system going down, local sirens not operating and power going out, radio and the Emergency Alert System as a means of public warning were seen as a failure.

Academic analysis of the apparent breakdown of the EAS in Minot focused its criticism toward the de-regulation of broadcasting and, in particular, corporate radio as the cause of the failure of Minot’s radio warning system. A 2004 study from Cornell University by Figueroa, Damone and Whitefield cited the Minot event as an example where “Clear Channel’s cost-cutting practices have undermined public safety.”

In another 2004 study, conducted by Dorothy Kidd of the Department of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco, the researcher states that Clear Channel Radio’s KCJB(AM) that morning “was on automatic, piping out a satellite feed. This was not unusual as Clear Channel only employs one full-time news employee in Minot, who rips and reads the newscasts from state and national wire services.”

In contrast, my research suggests the problem in Minot was two-sided, evolving from both poor interpersonal communications between the staff of KCJB radio and local emergency managers, and a lack of training and unfamiliarity with EAS activation by emergency personnel.

My findings suggest the EAS at KCJB could have been activated that morning by emergency managers accessing the National Weather Service through the National Warning System, or NAWAS. In a 2005 interview, Lt. Fred Debowey of the Minot police department stated, “But at the time of the derailment we were not aware that we could activate the National Weather Service with the hotline. No one had informed us that this was an option.”

Using Minot as a model, I found similar situations surrounding EAS activation at three additional events.

EAS derailed

At the derailment of chlorine tank cars in Macdona, Texas in June 2004, the gas plume from this event reached as far as the outskirts of San Antonio. I interviewed officials at local radio stations, the National Weather Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, and determined a civil emergency message was not initiated and the EAS was not activated during this event. In addition to the LP1 and LP2 stations not being activated, decoders at remotely controlled stations in the area (capable of relaying an EAS) were not activated either.

Essential emergency programming during this event came from the news departments of local San Antonio corporate radio stations, WOAI(AM) Clear Channel and KKYK(FM) Cox Radio Inc. Their knowledge of the event came by way of monitoring police scanner traffic.

In January of 2005, 5,400 people were evacuated after the derailment of tank cars carrying chemicals at Graniteville, S.C., near the state line of Georgia. The EAS actuation, delivered from the NWS, arrived two hours late. Although the local primary stations were monitoring their assigned NWS sources, the actuation was sent to other surrounding NWS transmitters. The activation had to be rerouted to trigger the EAS decoders across the state line in Augusta, Ga., at local primary stations WBBQ(FM) and WYZA(FM) (Clear Channel).

Conversely, it was these radio stations that covered the event with live news immediately following the event and hours before the arrival of the official activation of the EAS. NWS radio (VHF) did provide a public alert but could not act as a news outlet.

In October 2005 a train accident near Texarkana, Ark., produced a tank car explosion requiring the evacuation of 2,000 homes within a radius of one mile from the blast. The event took place at 5 a.m. My interview with Dave Hall, emergency manager for Miller County, Ark., revealed that emergency managers chose door-to-door contact and police car sirens to notify residents in the area, assuming most people were sleeping and not listening to radio, television or NWS radio. A 911 callback system also was successfully employed.

Wes Spicer, operations manager for Clear Channel’s KKYR(FM) in Texarkana, Ark., said that in the Texarkana emergency management plan, local officials are to contact the LP1 KKYR and have station personnel (in attendance 24 hours) activate the EAS from the station locally. Officials also have the option of contacting the NWS or the state relay to provide activation.

There was no CEM issued and the EAS was not activated during this event. However, KKYR News Director John Williams said in an interview that within 15 minutes of the first reports of the event, KKYR (Clear Channel) was receiving information from the local police department and broadcasting live emergency programming until residents could return to their homes.

Human touch

In each of these events the EAS system was not used, as was the case in Minot.

In the case of Graniteville it was activated locally well after the emergency began, and thus was useless as an early warning system. Like Minot, the stations providing emergency service broadcasting during these events were corporate broadcasters. In pragmatic terms, these stations failed to provide EAS activation because emergency managers chose not to activate the system or the network itself was not configured correctly – not because of their association with corporate radio.

A 2002 study by Kris, Wetzler, Marbut and Craveb, critically reviewing the corrections made to the system in Minot since the derailment, clearly finds that the complexities of FCC deregulation have little to do with the actual problems that occurred there. Rather, it has everything to do with the communications interface, both human and technical, between two very different entities charged with the dissemination of emergency information to the public.

Studies show that problems with the EAS existed long before deregulation. In addition to its unfunded mandate, the effective delivery of the EAS has been complicated by the following: convoluted state emergency management plans; complicated networks; poor reception from primary stations; unlinked stations; stress on volunteers heading up emergency communications committees; untrained personnel; poor communications between public officials and station managers; and a lack of government support.

Although EAS technology is gaining stability, research suggests it is the human administration of the system that presents the greatest challenge to its use. Given that in each phase of its existence, the EAS has only been activated from the bottom for local emergencies, this research conversely suggests a bottom-up approach to re-evaluating its usefulness.

The digital technology of the EAS works as well in a station “on auto” as it does with a full news staff. It can act as an early warning tool, not unlike the alarm whistle of a prairie dog. Today, radio’s role in this initial warning phase of a disaster has not diminished but rather is being shared.

Some public preparedness organizations are calling for the integration of the EAS into a variety of media: cell phones, televisions, the Internet etc.

Radio, if engaged correctly, can easily and efficiently reach a collective audience with information beyond the initial warning stage.

However, privately owned radio stations are only information outlets. To make these stations effective through all stages of an emergency, they must be directed by publicly controlled emergency management personnel who, in turn, must understand the limitations and functionality of radio’s communication role.

Unless we seriously consider the messenger’s needs – and its value – we will lose a vitally important link in emergency communications to the public.

Interested readers can see the author’s research in detail by visiting