Steve Davis, senior vice president of engineering for Clear Channel Radio, spoke at the National Alliance of State Broadcasters Associations’ 2006 National Summit on EAS and Emergency Communications in Alexandria, Va., last month. The broadcaster previewed the remarks as its “first public comments” after “four years of misinformation” about the Minot incident, which Clear Channel critics and others have used in describing problems with EAS and broadcasters’ involvement in it.
I have the challenge of directing Clear Channel’s preparation for, and response to, natural disasters and accidents with dangerous implications.
I personally worked on Clear Channel’s response to Hurricane Katrina, which had an impact on Clear Channel’s radio operations in a number of our radio markets, besides New Orleans. Damage to our infrastructure resulted in downed towers, loss of electrical power, loss of transmitting facilities and satellite reception capability.
Clear Channel’s long tenure in the broadcast industry has enabled us to amass a considerable stockpile of resources that proved invaluable in helping our stations, and our fellow broadcasters, before, during and after the storm. Our staff proved courageous, resourceful and generous as we guided communities through that difficult time.
But as we all know, hurricanes are unlike other disasters such as earthquakes, terrorist strikes and other unforeseeable accidents because there is some advance warning.
This is where the Emergency Alert System is the most critical.
Clear Channel has been working with the EAS since its inception in 1994, as well as its predecessor the Emergency Broadcast System. Over the years, there have been countless examples of the systems working well, both in situations involving adverse weather and unforeseen, dangerous events.
There is no debating that EAS equipment is a core element of the country’s first response effort. Our responsibility as a broadcaster is twofold: to deliver the equipment to local authorities (in many cases, we subsidize the equipment also), and to ensure that the EAS equipment at each of our stations is fully operational so that local or Federal authorities can automatically interrupt our broadcasts with public-safety messages.
But Clear Channel does not stop there. The company’s commitment to public safety was evidenced last year when a train derailed in Graniteville, S.C., spilling harmful chemicals causing deaths and endangering citizens. Clear Channel employees in Georgia and South Carolina went above and beyond the call of duty that day to step in when it became clear that local authorities were not successful in activating the EAS system to alert citizens of the dangerous conditions.
For those who aren’t familiar with radio engineering jargon, “activated” refers to when a third-party automatically interrupts a radio station’s signal remotely. It’s a hallmark of the Emergency Alert System. The National Weather Service is the most frequent user of this feature, for things like tornado warnings. But all local and Federal authorities have the ability to do this as well.
In the case of Graniteville, Clear Channel collaborated with the National Weather Service in Columbia, S.C., and the local emergency management office in Augusta, Ga., to determine that no station was activated properly.
It is unclear exactly how the local authorities attempted to activate the EAS, but the South Carolina primary station, WCOS(FM), and the secondary station, WLJK(TV), were not activated by the local authorities, even though the EAS equipment at those stations were working properly at the time of the accident. We receive test results monthly from both stations, so we know the stations’ systems were fully operational.
It was determined later that the local authorities did not properly operate the EAS equipment in their possession, nor did they verify that the attempt to send alerts was received by the public.
Herein lies the problem. That day, Clear Channel’s local engineers manually activated their own stations, helping to avert possible public contact with the dangerous chemicals. But that safety net will not always be there.
Local authorities must have adequate training on the equipment and procedures to ensure the safety of our communities. Yet, sadly they often don’t. And the problem is too often hidden from view because EAS equipment at radio stations, the National Weather Service and other federal agencies is fully operational – and the professionals tasked with operating it are well-trained.
But not always.
On Jan. 21, 2002, this problem came into plain view. I’m speaking of the train derailment in Minot, N.D., when harmful chemicals were spilled creating a toxic cloud that affected residents and was responsible for at least one death.
Unfortunately, the failure of specific local law enforcement officials to accept responsibility for the situation that ensued has prevented the situation from being corrected, even four years later.
Regardless of what you’ve heard or read, the truth of the matter is that local law enforcement were unable to execute EAS procedures that night – they did not and could not activate the EAS – as the National Weather Service has done without incident before that day and since – because, tragically, local law enforcement had not installed their equipment.
Instead, that night, in the midst of chaos, they turned to telephone lines that were already clogged by calls to them from citizens – including our own radio staff – attempting to learn what was happening. And as a result, the local community was not fully and immediately informed of a life-threatening situation.
And so we reluctantly discuss this topic with you today with the hope that it demonstrates a critical gap in what we all discuss at forums like this, and what can actually happen when disasters hit. We have worked behind the scenes to make this information public, but to no avail.
So I speak with you today to first, remind local law enforcement of their responsibility, and second, to highlight a problem that will be repeated if it’s not corrected.
It is not enough to subsidize the cost of EAS equipment and deliver it to local law enforcement. Local law enforcement must be properly trained in EAS procedures and equipment – and the equipment must be properly installed. This is especially critical in the nation’s smallest communities, which are at the highest risk.
It bears repeating that success depends on three things:
* That the federal agencies overseeing the nation’s Emergency Alert System ensure that EAS equipment at local law enforcement facilities is operational and that local law enforcement and emergency personnel are properly trained in its use and EAS procedures.
* That local broadcasters ensure that their equipment is operational and that their staff is properly trained.
* That there is a healthy dialogue and collaboration among local authorities and broadcasters … And that means that if there are individuals that cannot perform in this manner, those individuals are replaced with individuals who can.
We must all accept our collective and interwoven responsibility as first responders.
And so we implore those with the authority to correct the problem to do so in a timely fashion. The EAS system can, and has, worked. We need 100 percent cooperation to ensure it will work 100 percent of the time.
So, with the goal of moving forward and working towards a safe 2006, I thank you for your time today and I look forward to the collaboration between the public and private sector in ensuring public safety is a number one priority.