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Disasters: Is Your Station Ready?

A Checklist to Help Broadcasters Prepare for the Unexpected

A Checklist to Help Broadcasters Prepare for the Unexpected

Is your radio or TV station prepared for disaster?

This checklist is a starting point. It was prepared by a contingency planning coordinator for a major network in support of a new Web site on the issue at , which describes itself as the Internet’s only Web site dedicated to helping broadcasters prepare for, mitigate and survive disasters that could threaten their operational viability.

1) Know your risks. That means all your risks: natural, manmade, socio-economic/political and criminal/terrorism. Draw on data readily available on the Internet and through local authorities, along with your own experiences and instinct.

2) Once risks are identified, assess their likelihood and impact on your entire enterprise. Some risks are greater than others, depending on the time of year and the geographic location of your plant. Remember to consider your on-air and back-office operations.

3) Assess your general preparedness and available assets. Begin at the beginning with the most likely hazards to befall any commercial enterprise: fire and flood. Are there plans for evacuating the building, notifying key decision-makers at any hour, relocating and resuming your critical operations, maintaining client care and employee welfare and obtaining vital supplies under inhospitable conditions?

Go on to create scenarios for the crises your organization is most likely to endure. For each one, there should be a plan of action for response, recovery and mitigation.

4) Utility provisions. In the likely event that you will lose commercial power, is there a second commercial grid onto which you can be auto-switched? Do you have sufficient electrical generating capacity to sustain life-safety, environmental and broadcast systems at studio and transmitter sites? Is your fuel supply topped off and “polished” regularly? Do you test the system under a heavy draw at least quarterly? How about backup power at any intercity relay sites you may require to complete your STL loop?

If you lose phone service, does every key member of your ops team have a cellular or Nextel phone (preferably both), and spare batteries and chargers to go with them? Does every member of the staff have those reach numbers at hand?

If you rely on landlines to get your signal or any of your production components from point A to point B, do you have microwave backup and/or a second fiber vendor onto which you can hot-switch your traffic?

Do you know who on your staff is an amateur radio operator? Have you installed the necessary gear for said staffer(s) to establish ops, not for commercial broadcast but to gather critical health and welfare information for verification and subsequent dissemination to the public?

If you lose municipal water service, are you on a priority list for bottled water and beverage service? Do you maintain a reasonable inventory of bottled water on-site in the event access to your facilities is impeded? Do you know methods of manually flushing commodes in the event your sites lose water pressure?

5) Ringdown lists. Are personnel files updated at least semi-annually to make sure you have current home address, home phone, cellphone, pager and e-mail information for everyone on your staff? Are these files kept in an easily transportable format like Microsoft Access, so they can be maintained off-site, on laptops or PDAs and printed out onto Rolodex cards with ease? Are they cross-referenced by department, job function, last and first name and geographical location?

Do you maintain a similar set of files for your key vendors, news contacts, public officials, miscellaneous experts and non-profit disaster relief agencies? How about your client lists and contract files? How and where are they backed up and maintained?

6) Panic protocols. Does each member of your staff know how to interpret and implement EAS notifications? Are there all-crisis guidebooks that are well-organized, up-to-date and prominently displayed in all operational areas of your station to help even novices commence emergency response plans in the absence of a manager?

Do those plans include management of sensitive commercial inventory? For example, the removal of all airline spots when reporting a plane crash.

Do you have a speed dial system – hardware or vendor-based – to reach off-site personnel and bring them into the station? Do you have some sort of on-air code that staffers can use to initiate a designated response when normal communications channels are down?

Are there general background packets on hand to help non-news people speak intelligently and informatively about the types of crises most likely to affect your listening or viewing area?

Have you established and promulgated clear ground rules for program interruption, in terms of circumstances and style, and joined-in-progress programming restorations and programming normalization?

7) Staff cross-training. Emergencies can be routine and still be all-hands-on-deck events. Have you trained your back-office staff for on-air and production operations like call screening, board ops, field producing, reporting and emergency announcement processing (cancellations, delays, relocations, etc.)?

8) Financial planning. Do you keep a petty cash fund of approximately $100 per employee on-site for emergencies in which cash is the only accepted currency? Depending on the nature of the crisis, these could be more the rule than the exception.

9) Human factors. It would not be unusual for staffers to work extraordinarily long shifts under stressful circumstances in a cataclysmic emergency. Are you prepared to shelter your personnel in-place? Do you have cots or sleeping bags, and a quiet place to deploy them? Are there phones for them to use to keep in touch with their families?

Do you have a stock of energy bars and other nutritious snacks on hand? Have you stocked comfort items like bathroom tissue, paper cups and plates, plastic utensils, microwave oven, refrigerator/freezer, toaster oven, etc.? Is there access to grief counseling and stress management?

10) First aid. Do at least two people in every department and on every shift know community first aid and CPR? How about rescue resources? You’ll want more than over-the-counter aspirin and bandage dispensaries on site. Do you have materials for immobilizing injured limbs; an automated external defibrillator; instant hot and cold packs; smelling salts; pocket masks for rescue breathing; and a first aid guide approved by the American Red Cross? How about portable oxygen and personal respirators in the event of a biological or nuclear emergency?

11) Alternate facilities. Use the same rigorous risk assessment to evaluate sites for an alternate facility. Will you want a fully equipped “hot” site, consisting of reserved space with a bare-bones control platform and STL? Can you bunk with a co-owned sister, a TV station affiliated with the same network as your station, the local newspaper, a sponsor or the local cable head-end?

What facilities will you want or need in place to activate this site on short notice? How will you get the right people there quickly? What are the cutover and cutback procedures? Can you apply existing automation technologies to the process?

With specific regard to transmitter sites, have your community’s broadcasters addressed the paradigm shift away from co-locating backup facilities at the main site? Given the widespread public aversion to new tower construction and short-spaced allocations that might preclude a new tower location, have you collectively explored backups on each other’s towers to make sure there is always a viable facility available?

12) Resource pre-positioning/Rights of first refusal. Have you pre-arranged with vendors of key products and services for priority response to your primary and alternate facilities in the event of a crisis? Can you reach them when normal communications channels are down? Have you supplied them with a list of your needs to assure availability at a moment’s notice?

13) Target hardening. Assuming that your station is a likely target of deliberate damage in your community, what steps have you taken to improve access control and tracking; facilities reinforcement; entrance interlocks; impact-resistance glass in window lines accessible to the public; alarms and sensors; fencing; on-site patrols; and recorded TV surveillance?

14) Geographic diversity and flexible response. Do you keep your station vehicles and remote assets together in the station lot or garage? Have you thought about allowing at least some of these vehicles to go home with employees for a more rapid emergency response? This ensures you have at least some broadcast assets away from your main facility in the event it is compromised, or access if it is restricted in any way and for any length of time?

Similarly, might it be advantageous to consider more than one alternate facility if there is no one place that minimizes all significant risks to your operations?

15) Long-term vs. short-term crisis plans. Not every emergency will be a newsworthy crisis that affects your entire listening area. In fact, the most vexing crises will be local, affecting only you and your facility. How will you address business continuity under these conditions? Do you have a “bridge” plan for short-distance, short-duration relocation that can be free-standing for “physical plant emergencies” or the first part of another, more extensive plan for lengthier relocation farther away from your main facility in a community-wide crisis?

16) Community service obligations/special needs. Broadcasters must always stand ready to serve the public interest and convenience and necessity, even under inhospitable conditions. Do you have ready access to the experts and relief resources your community will need to get through your common crisis? Has your risk analysis taken into account broader community needs in terms of information and comfort, such as temporary shelter, food and water, medical care, pets and special populations like the elderly, children and non-English speakers?

17) Format considerations. Yours may be a music-intensive radio station or a TV station without a news operation. Nonetheless, 9/11 proved that while all-news and news-talk listenership soared, many listeners stayed with non-news stations to which they were partial, often just to hear a comforting voice. Is your non-news station ready for the challenge?

Do you have a network affiliation, or a partnership agreement to share content with a spoken-word sister station or competitor, or with a local TV station? Have you re-subscribed to a wire service? What’s your plan when the music has to stop?

18) Non-broadcast distribution. TV stations which lose over-the-air transmission facilities and have no backup immediately at hand should have ready an all-hours contact list for cable MSOs in their service areas, and contacts at the new direct-to-home satellite providers. Direct fiber and/or microwave paths to these providers should be established to maintain a dial presence for cable and satellite subscribers until over-the-air operations can be restored.

Radio stations should continue to stream via the Internet if those facilities are intact, and should also reach out to cable operators for carriage on local access channels if located in markets without an all-news radio station or local TV news operation.

19) Emergency operating provisions. Did you know that FCC rules allow broadcasters to operate at full power and maximized pattern, regardless of license parameters, and at any time of the day or night in the event of an emergency where life and property are at risk? Check with your staff or contract engineer on the rules governing emergency operating procedures.

20) News on the cheap. If news is not a big part of your routine programming, have you thought about recruiting interns from a local college journalism program to use your facility as an off-air lab on the condition that are available for on-air and support duty during an emergency? This is a great way to make sure there is always an extra hand around, even if paid newspeople exist, during the hours when the latter are out gathering news, or simply not on duty.

21) Disaster preparation that pays for itself. The costs of contingency planning almost require the effort to be somewhat self-sustaining. Can you compile disaster resources suitable for public consumption into a booklet you can sell to sponsors as a high-profile, year-round marketing investment? How about creating contingency packages for key clients who can provide critical recovery services and products to your community?

22) Pre-production considerations. The time to prepare imagers, bumpers, graphics and other production elements is before disaster strikes. Once your risk analysis is complete, you’ll know what ills are likely to befall your community. You can take advantage of the calm before the storm to consider various branding and image strategies and tactics, and work with your voice talent or graphics and promotions people to bring the same level of professionalism to spontaneous programming that you bring to your routine presentation. The polish conveys a feeling of calm competence to a frightened audience.

23) Dupe and distribute. As is the case with backup technology, don’t keep your critical data backups on-site or in any high-risk environment and backup vital station records daily – not just servers, but laptops and even PDAs, where possible. Make more than one backup, and keep all but one backup off-site, preferably at a number of sites to which key employees will have easy access.

24) Employees on travel. Require daily status checks from all employees on business travel, and see if you can persuade vacationing staffers in critical positions to leave a way for them to be reached, at least through a third party, such as a relative. Explain that the nature of our business requires all essential personnel to remain “in-pocket,” even when they have every right not to be.

25) Drill your plans – early and often. Every disaster plan looks great on paper, but it is not until they are exercised that their flaws are revealed. Drill your plans at least twice a year. Vary the hours, days and scenarios with each exercise. It’s a bit disruptive, but so is the real thing.

26) Extraordinary resource planning. The secret of surviving disasters is smartly anticipating anything and everything you might need to continue or enhance your operations. For example, if you’re in a market where airborne traffic reporting is more the exception than the rule, have you thought about how you’d cover a regional disaster from the air? How will you keep your Web site up and running?

27) Memory joggers. Have you thought about assembling wallet cards containing your critical internal and external contact information? In a crisis, the brain races in a million different directions. Anything you can do to simplify the thought/action process will help.

28) Sharing capital expenses. In the days immediately following 9/11, when mayoral news conferences were taking place in New York City with some frequency, the networks and local stations pooled resources to establish a single multilateral fiber loop from City Hall that fed all the city’s broadcast news operations simultaneously from a single video/audio source. The broadcasters rotated camera responsibilities, enabling them to better deploy their already-strained field resources elsewhere while still covering an important, but generic news event.

This kind of system works well at emergency operations centers, sports arenas and airports – where everyone will need to be on an ongoing basis in a disaster. It pays for itself year-round by freeing up resources for a growing number of “one-shots,” and works for transmission plants. Why not explore the possibilities elsewhere?

29) Vehicle preps. In addition to scattering your field fleet for more-effective deployment, make sure those with assigned vehicles maintain them in accordance with the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule, and more frequently as applications demand. No one should park a station vehicle without checking for adequate tire pressure and making sure it is fully fueled with critical fluid levels topped off. Make sure each car has jumper cables, battery-powered air compressor (which can also help you dry out water-logged electronics), a high-powered spotlight and flares/safety reflectors.

If your vehicles are parked in precarious places during news coverage, you might want to consider installing a conspicuity package of flashing strobes in the head or taillights, on the roof or on the dashboard and rear deck.

30) Owning the reliability image. Your station can talk the talk, but you have to walk the walk to master this aspect of disaster preparedness. It helps to do some news programming and promote it even when things are quiet. Even if you have no news department – and after 9/11, we’d have to politely question that decision – and you have empowered your air staff with some of the aforementioned tricks, you can promote them to your advantage.

It can be as simple as reminding your listeners of what you’ve done to assure that you’ll stay on the air no matter what. No one wants to profit from the misfortunes of others, but you need to let your listeners know you’ll be there when the going gets tough.

31) “Go Teams”/”Go Kits.” The A.H. Belo stations use a common design for much of the engineering across their station group, so that a Belo technician from one station can feel at home in any Belo station. When reporters and crews travel to other markets, they come self-contained, drawing on a “Go Kit” that is reserved for such purposes and contains nearly everything they would need to sustain themselves without much help from a host station. These gear assemblies are even prepared for international customs clearance.

The reporters and crews themselves are rotated monthly on and off a “Go Team,” each member carrying a common pager number and tasked to go anywhere news is breaking on an hour’s notice. Belo goes so far as to limit the amount of social drinking “Go Team” members can do when they are “on rotation.” Go Kits, Jump Bags – whatever the name, the purpose is the same: to have essential supplies at your fingertips when you have to fly out the door.

32) The importance of routine maintenance. When was the last time you had your guy wire clocks checked; tower re-lamping done; inspected your fire extinguishers and any battery-operated life-safety devices; overhauled your mechanical transcription systems, programming and engineering control surfaces, etc? There’ll be no time and no available bodies during a crisis. Take advantage of downtime to keep your systems in peak operating condition.

33) It is cheaper to undo than to do. Procrastination is the trap door of disaster planning, and delaying one’s planning for contingencies can render the entire process moot. It is almost impossible to plan well in the midst of a disaster. Because they can happen at the most inopportune times, the idea is to have a failsafe plan tested and in place before it is needed. If the protocol is commenced, then cancelled shortly thereafter, the costs are usually far less than those incurred winging a plan on the fly in the thick of a disaster.