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Katrina Put Crisis Plans to the Test

What can managers learn from the way radio reacted to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath?

What can managers learn from the way radio reacted to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath?

I spoke with engineers at the heart of Entercom’s spectacularly successful, widely reported response, which centered around WWL(AM) in New Orleans. Comments here are by Vice President of Engineering Marty Hadfield. Next time we’ll hear about the engineering response in the field.

Wise managers would do well to think about these points.

Appoint a crisis team: Immediately after realizing the severity of the situation, Entercom President/CEO David Field appointed three corporate-level managers in Seattle as an emergency crisis center. Field instructed that all communication flow through Hadfield, Vice President of News/Talk Programming Ken Beck and Vice President of Human Resources Noreen McCormack.

“The three of us have been the team overseeing the actions, more or less directing everyone that’s down there on where to go and how to do it,” Hadfield said weeks after the storm.

Consider basing decision-makers away from the emotional core of the crisis: “In talking to our people down there, now working valiantly toward recovery, we found that it’s not a bad idea to have an out-of-area crisis management team in place,” Hadfield said. “It gives us a perspective they can’t possibly touch. They’re focused on where they are and the distruction in their surroundings, they forget that they’re also extremely emotionally fragile. You have to take that into account. Our engineers tell us that having someone in the ‘crow’s nest’ really helps.”

From Seattle, Hadfield eventually would be in touch with the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, Clear Channel, Cox, fuel suppliers, even the White House – “this whole network that, 90 percent of the time, the people in the market can’t be in contact with because they don’t have cellphone or telephones that work reliably. we can make the necessary contacts, and the coordination is effective .” Having a long view also helped the company squash rumors circulating among employees in the Gulf Coast.

Put fuel reserves in place. “It’s almost impossible to have too much fuel available,” Hadfield said. Ask yourself how you’ll power your generators and station vehicles if electricity is out and local suppliers are unavailable. “Even if you don’t use it all, someone else might need fuel. We helped another broadcaster when the FCC asked (us) to help out with gas for their generator.”

Create communication networks while planning how to deal with their loss. “The biggest challenge in this, frankly, has been keeping track of our people,” Hadfield said. Entercom employs about 135 people in the region. “Some evacuated early, some stayed on the job, some were in transit. To track them down, make sure they were safe and to set some level of communication with them is a phenomenal task that, through pre-planning, Noreen McCormack was prepared to handle.

Be prepare for poor communications into and out of the region. Weeks after, contact via cellphone remained difficult in many cases. “Sometimes Nextel Direct Connect works, in others not a chance. Somewhere else Verizon works.” In New Orleans, Hadfield said, cell service was awful while the Louisiana Superdome was crowded with escapees from the storm. “Before the Superdome was emptied, cellphone service in the Central Business District was terrible. But once the stranded people’s cellphone batteries started going dead after about two or three days, the cell system started lighting up again.” Satellite phones generally worked well, but there were some operational issues with them, such as – when they’re indoors, they lose reception.

How to accomplish this goal is a topic worth its own article. But give thought to how you would communicate if your accustomed infrastructure goes down.

“Be prepared to take care of yourself and your people without reliance on anyone from the outside, ” Hadfield said. “No matter how well intended the civil authorities are, it’s a slow process, sometimes a fatally flawed process. You’ve gotta be prepared for the worst for your people.”

WWL staff knew hurricanes were a risk for the area and had a well-established emergency plan that included 15 people working at its downtown studios. “So we had food and water for 15 people for many days; they were in fine shape” at first, Hadfield said. But things got dicier.

Entercom had offered to put up family members of those 15 volunteers at the Hyatt across the street. “That was good until after the big storm and they closed the Hyatt. All of a sudden these people were saying, ‘Where do we go?’ They came to us.” Suddenly the station had 50 people in the studio facility, including staff’s loved ones, rather than 15. Fortunately the water supply held out and supplies were obtained from nearby stores.

Then Entercom had to get those people out. “It turned into some rescue efforts. It was a burden we hadn’t really planned for. We sublet a helicopter, which Clear Channel had been using to ferry folks to RF sites, to get folks out of there. When we were down to the last 13 people, we got help from the National Guard, the folks at Jefferson Parish Emergency Group, even personal bodyguards of the parish president. They commandeered a parish school bus and took one of our engineers as a guide, and rescued our last people from the building.

“It was wild controlling that from 2,600 miles away and saying, ‘You’ve got an hour to get them out of there or they have to go across the street and get in line for the Dome.'”

Also fortunate, or the result of good planning: No one among Entercom’s staff was killed or seriously hurt in or after the storm. One engineer was bitten by fire ants while working at a transmitter site.

Have cash. “Be sure your people have some cash stashed, in fairly small bills. When the AC went out, the stores can sell stuff, but can’t or won’t make change efficiently.” When Entercom staff from out of the area arrived in RVs, they brought welcome cash.

Give people a break: If the crisis lasts more than a short time, you can alleviate stress on your people. Entercom instituted an engineering “recycling” program in which out-of-market engineers are “cycled in,” working alongside a colleague for a day or two then taking over the task so the first person could take much-needed time away.

Be lucky … or make your own. “There’d been several elements of good fortune throughout this bizarre situation,” Hadfield said. The natural gas generator at WWL’s studios continued to run and run. That allowed the station to maintain microwave links with downtown early in the crisis. Access to the Louisiana Network satellite uplink near the emergency studios in Baton Rouge was an important part of the program chain to the WWL transmitter. Another was the presence of a satellite receive dish at the emergency operating center, which in turn fed the studios for a while.

“Since we (still) had the phone line to our studios downtown, we left that potted up on the console downtown,” Hadfield said, “so in the early days we could keep all of our operations going through our phone line downtown, and it went to all of our sites.

“We also were fortunate that the Jefferson County Emergency Ops Center is not far, just a few miles straight north from WWL, so we have a direct STL link.”

The company also thought creatively. “We even had backups by picking up WWL on an AM radio and feeding it into the other stations’ transmitter inputs out at their tower sites. You had to get really creative in your thinking about how to maintain the signals.”

Be a good neighbor. The joint, ad hoc effort initiated by Entercom and Clear Channel employees is one of the most gratifying stories to come out of Katrina. But you don’t have to wait for a crisis to establish contacts with other broadcasters in your region and to start the dialogue about “what might…? what if…?”

Have a plan: I reminded Hadfield that WWL’s Joseph Pollet had given a presentation at the spring NAB about the importance of hurricane preparedness in a city below sea level.

“What’s really bizarre is that so much of the hurricane damage was actually predicted and what we talked about, came into being. Fortunately, we had our plan in place,” Hadfield said. “We fared quite reasonably well. … From a technical standpoint, even though there were bumps, we held up very well.”

Other lessons? “You have to think inside, as well as outside of the box,” Hadfield said. “Creativity, whether from a programming standpoint or an engineering recovery standpoint … that’s a huge asset.”