WASHINGTON The Federal Communications Commission has renewed efforts to build a national database of radio stations it can use to determine damage to broadcast infrastructure quickly after a disaster.
It's billed as disaster support for broadcasters, and the FCC is joining with the National Association of Broadcasters to ratchet up its campaign to entice broadcasters to participate in the voluntary in-house reporting system.
The Disaster Information Reporting System is a free Web-based program launched by the commission and the Department of Homeland Security's National Communications System. It allows broadcasters and other communication providers, including wireless and wireline services, to report their status after public disaster.
Approximately 700 radio and TV broadcast stations are registered with the DIRS initiative, which launched in 2007. FCC officials say many of those stations are concentrated in the Gulf Coast region.
FCC officials say DIRS is crucial to maintaining communication paths with the public after any major disaster.
Broadcasters can use DIRS to request fuel, generators and other equipment they might need after a disaster. The FCC, Federal Emergency Management Agency and local public safety officials will have access to the information.
"Hurricane Katrina taught us a lot. The process of collecting information on the damage done to communications infrastructure was labor-intensive," said John Healy, an FCC Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau official, during a DIRS informational Webcast hosted by NAB this year.
"We had daily phone calls out to every single radio and TV station in the impacted area. The process was very manual with multiple agencies involved. It just wasn't very coordinated."
Broadcast participation low
But most importantly, he said, "broadcasters really had no way of asking us for help."
In an effort to raise awareness of the benefits, the FCC and NAB are hoping to boost radio and TV station participation, which has been low.
DIRS has been activated four times since its inception: during hurricanes Gustav and Ike and tropical storm Fay in 2008, and during the Kentucky ice storms in 2009.
"The likelihood of (DIRS) being activated in the Gulf region is higher than other geographic areas, but this would be a very valuable tool anywhere across the country during disaster restoration efforts," said David Layer, senior director of advanced engineering with NAB.
Broadcasters simply create a DIRS account and then log in to submit information voluntarily regarding their status after a disaster, Layer said. "They update the information just once a day remotely via an Internet connection and only during the time that DIRS is activated."
That information will be passed along through FEMA to state emergency operations.
"Our goal is for the seamless coordination of communications following a disaster. We know over-the-air broadcast is the most vital communications tool there is in those cases," said FCC spokesman Robert Kenny. "We can help with whatever it takes to maintain operations. For instance, a broadcaster might need special temporary authority to operate out of the license norm after a disaster. We can help with that."
Kenny said broadcasters in the hurricane-prone regions of the southern United States in particular realize the importance of disaster preparedness, hence a high number of DIRS registrants in those areas.
Project Roll Call
"But it could be flooding in the upper Midwest or an earthquake in California. Regardless, we invite as many participants as possible," Kenny said.
The DIRS program serves as a complement to the FCC's Project Roll Call system, which establishes a baseline of broadcast activity prior to a hurricane or other disaster to give emergency managers an idea of who is on the air broadcasting critical information to the public post-disaster, Kenny said.
Project Roll Call, a program of the FCC and FEMA, uses data collected by FCC field engineers equipped with a spectrum analyzer to measure broadcast activity within a 30-mile radius before and after a disaster. "We expect to emphasize the use of DIRS and Project Recall in the future. Emergency preparedness and need to maintain the communication infrastructure after a disaster is more crucial than ever.
"In times of crisis, Americans rely on local broadcasters to deliver critical information that can help save lives. Developing programs to help keep them on the air or get them back on the air is very important to the FCC," Kenny said. "This is really a small effort with big benefits for broadcasters."
The administration of DIRS "has resulted in very minimal incremental cost to the FCC," he said, with existing staff assigned to the DIRS initiative when activated.
Private information that radio stations provide to the FCC in regards to DIRS is confidential, he added.
Clear Channel Radio has registered some of its stations in DIRS, said Steve Davis, senior vice president of engineering and capital management for Clear Channel, mostly in areas prone to hurricanes and earthquakes.
"We think DIRS is a worthwhile effort in coordinating between broadcast media, common carriers, first responders, government regulators and emergency management," Davis said.
the company's Emergency Operations Center, headed by Jeff Bennett, expects to help coordinate local responses for the DIRS database after disasters, Davis said.
"While we are initially focused on those stations in hurricane- and earthquake-prone regions, we anticipate that we will be able to provide DIRS information in a timely manner for all Clear Channel radio stations."
Broadcasters can register for DIRS by visiting www.fcc.gov/nors/disaster/, or do a Web search for "FCC DIRS" for more information.