Weather has the unique capacity to take your facility down instantly and with little to no warning. "Always have a backup" has been a maxim of broadcast engineers since the beginning of radio.
This used to mean having two redundant systems running in parallel. Today's installations are much more complicated, and staying on the air in times of crisis can sometimes be more difficult than it once was.
Steve Davis, senior vice president, engineering and capital management for Clear Channel Radio, will speak on this topic at the NAB Radio Show in Philadelphia.
Davis notes that across the Clear Channel organization, off-air emergencies happen on an average of every other week, although they can occur more often during hurricane season.
"Hurricanes are somewhat predictable, but we also need to be ready for all kinds of natural disasters, blackouts and even bomb scares."
A significant number of outages come from loss of T1 lines through "backhoe fade," so, "If you have T1 service, don't get rid of your STL backup." (In the case of Clear Channel, there is also the VSAT Safety Net, a satellite-based backup system about which Davis spoke at the NAB Show in April.)
Disasters can happen at any time. Here a station has lost its STL tower but was saved by Clear Channel's VSAT backup system. Being ready for off-air emergencies involves planning, people and hardware components.
"A disaster readiness plan costs no money, and is a good place to start. First off, decide where people will meet if your studios are no longer available. For example, there may be reciprocating agreements with other broadcasters to use their studios in emergencies, or you may have backup facilities at your transmitter site."
He adds that a plan needs to be updated regularly as employees and phone numbers change, and everyone should keep a copy at home.
A call tree for emergency personnel to reach your station should also be a part of the plan. If no one is available at the studio, cell numbers for engineering and management personnel should be next. In the case of Clear Channel, Davis explains, the call tree ends with the company's technical headquarters in Cincinnati, which is manned 24/7.
Davis emphasizes that relationships with employees, clients and emergency services personnel all need to be nurtured.
"Having icemakers, water, food and essentials to distribute to employees can help them stay focused on the job. Stocking additional supplies to give to citizens in need can have a tremendous impact on community relations, and many of these materials can be obtained inexpensively from the local surplus store."
Davis recalls a station that was able to do a trade with a local hardware store to make small emergency generators available to those in need.
Can your station stay on the air if disaster strikes? This station lost its tower in the middle of a flood. It's also important to establish good relations with first responders.
"These folks need to know in advance who you are, and what you are prepared to do, because they may not have time to talk with you when there is an emergency. Take them out to lunch, get to know them, make friends in the neighborhood."
He adds that if a station doesn't have a news department, it might try to build a relationship with a local news organization such as a broadcast news team.
Clear Channel has employed a strategy that aims to put the right gear in eight hubs throughout the United States.
Davis said that trucks with portable transmitters, generators and a portable antenna are small enough so that one doesn't need a commercial driver's license to operate them, an important consideration. Clear Channel also has a fleet of modified RVs that can sleep six and are used for crew housing.
Emergency generators and portable gear are standardized on diesel fuel. A truck with a 100-gallon tank is available to refuel generators. This is the maximum capacity that can be carried nationwide without requiring hazardous materials permits.
Also important: equipment must work when you need it.
"Backup transmitters and generators need to be run regularly, and there should be a log of equipment checks and meter readings. Fuel level for generators should be frequently checked."
Clear Channel maintains a fleet of disaster recovery vehicles around the country. Equipment shown is at the Tulsa, Okla., hub. Spare parts for emergency gear also need to be on hand. Davis emphasizes that the electrical hardware and heavy cable necessary to connect generators to the AC service may not be available from a store during disasters and should be obtained in advance.
One mistake broadcasters should avoid, according to Davis, is requiring anyone to be at the studio during a disaster.
"This can expose personnel to safety hazards. Staying on the air is vital, but it is better to have a plan for offsite access. Many pieces of equipment can be remote-controlled via a laptop and Internet connection, but you need to have the passwords at hand, and operators need to be drilled on how to do this."
While Davis' talk will emphasize studio and transmitter facilities, he adds that a station's online services should also be covered in disaster plans.
"Online listenership is growing, and having backup servers and UPS is important, as well as having a third party to monitor a station's site for Web connectivity." Davis adds that ultimately a station's online service is at the mercy of the Internet, which is not under the broadcaster's control.
Davis will present his session "Operating Under Emergency Conditions" on Wednesday Sept. 23 at 8 a.m.
Read more about Clear Channel's VSAT "safety net" from Steve Davis in an Aprilinterview by U.S. Editor in Chief Paul McLane.