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Radio as ‘Emergency Infrastructure’

Broadcasters and others assess response after Superstorm Sandy

One in a series of stories wrapping up news and themes from the spring NAB Show.

Broadcast news crews interview New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Credit: WABC(TV)
When the weather is at its worst, broadcasters are at their best. That’s the message emergency planners for radio and TV have been trying to spread for years, and broadcasters speaking at the NAB Show in Las Vegas say it was borne out in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy last fall.

“Most broadcasters did a lot of work in New York on storm preparation,” said New York State Broadcasters Association President/Executive Director David Donovan, part of a panel on “EAS, Superstorm Sandy and Accessible Emergency Warnings: A Discussion of Broadcasters’ Role as First Informers” in the Broadcast Engineering Conference.

Broadcasters had an advantage before Sandy in the form of accurate predictions of the storm’s path and timing, according to Donovan. That allowed them to plan for one of their biggest concerns: the availability of fuel to keep generators powered and news vehicles moving after the storm hit.

“New York City is made of islands, and when the bridges and tunnels aren’t functioning, you’re going to have problems,” Donovan said.

Indeed they did. While most of New York’s FM and TV stations sailed through the storm with the help of fully fueled generators, “where we ran into problems was AM,” Donovan said, “because a lot of towers are in New Jersey in the flood zone, so there was some flooding that knocked out power.”

Preparation worked there, too, though: Donovan said partnerships among AM, FM and TV stations kept content flowing even as specific transmission paths were knocked out. WINS(AM) moved its programming to sister FMs in the CBS Radio family, while WOR(AM) began carrying WNBC(TV) audio after losing power in its own lower Manhattan studio.

Devastation in Breezy Point, Queens.
Credit: Kenton Young/WPIX(TV)
Donovan said the value of all that preparation quickly became clear as other communication paths began to fail. Without power in the worst of the storm-ravaged areas, including lower Manhattan and much of Long Island’s south shore, television, Internet and phone service all went down within hours of Sandy’s arrival.

“New York City saw a 70 percent increase in radio listenership that night,” Donovan said. “Radio was the key to keeping the people informed that night.”

He says broadcasters, especially radio stations, had some big structural advantages over competing communications channels. With transmitters capable of being powered by generators even if the power grid went down, “our architecture is a wide-area architecture covering 30, 40 or 50 miles out,” he said. “We are not prone to trees destroying our system” in the same way that a wind-blown tree can take down power, phone and internet service to a neighborhood.


But the biggest problem, Donovan said, still turned out to be a fuel-related issue: getting access to gasoline for the news vehicles trying to cover the storm’s aftermath.

“The port of New York was closed, and the gas stations that still had fuel didn’t have working pumps, so getting access to federal fuel depots was critical,” he recalled. Before the storm hit, FEMA had already approved access to fuel for broadcasters’ generators, but not for news trucks. That’s where a series of late-night phone calls to the FCC came in.

“The commission was phenomenal,” Donovan said. He specifically mentioned Ken Moran, senior deputy chief and chief preparedness officer of the FCC’s Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau.

“Ken Moran worked through FEMA and we were able to get approval for our news trucks. So our guys went to the depots and showed the letter, and the guy with the gun said, ‘Get out of here! Anybody can fake a letter.’”

That’s a lesson that’s been learned far from New York. Mike O’Hare, deputy director, of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, was also on the panel, discussing the importance of government cooperation with broadcasters. “States need to recognize that broadcasters are emergency infrastructure, and if we can’t provide fuel for you guys to broadcast and get that information out, we’re all dead in the water.”

In addition to better securing fuel availability, one post-Sandy lesson in New York is finding more ways to communicate with broadcasters at the height of an emergency. “For a period of time, I couldn’t reach my stations because the phone system was gone, so we need to work out a better way of communicating with them,” said Donovan.

While the federal budget sequester prevented them from traveling to Las Vegas, several FCC and FEMA officials took part in the session via video, including Wade Witmer, deputy director of FEMA’s IPAWS division. Broadcasters are doing a good job of incorporating IPAWS-generated alerts into their emergency communication, but Witmer said radio stations can do a better job of cooperating with wireless carriers who now deliver emergency messages directly to customers’ phones and other handheld devices.

“I’ve heard from stations that will not talk about wireless emergency alerts on the air, because that’s the competition,” Witmer said. “But you should be educating listeners about what that ugly tone is that’s on their phones, and reminding them that when they hear those tones, they should tune to your station.”

Witmer also reminded stations to be assertive about being part of local governments’ emergency plans.

“If your station has power backup and you intend to stay on the air during disasters, that’s something your local emergency officials should know.”