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9/11 Raised Redundancy Awareness

But a decade later, cost remains a real obstacle to backup infrastructure

WASHINGTON Most broadcasters understand now — even if they didn’t before 9/11 — that tragedy can strike anywhere. The attacks 10 years ago highlighted the need for resiliency and redundancy in broadcast operations and facilities.

The terrorists who struck the World Trade Center took with them a massive amount of broadcast infrastructure. The stations that lost rooftop transmission facilities struggled to return to the air in the days after the tragedy. From that experience came a heightened sense of awareness among broadcasters about redundancy in the management and design of systems, observers say.

Clear Channel Radio’s Emergency Response team responds to a situation in Dickinson, N.D. For RW’s story about the incident, see Photo byBill Barney, Clear Channel Radio

However, the creation of truly redundant major backup systems can be a costly and difficult management challenge.

A 2008 report by the FCC to Congress highlighted shortcomings still found in the commercial communications infrastructure throughout the country, including radio. “The commercial communications infrastructure is typically designed and deployed to reliability and resiliency specifications that are less rigorous than emergency responder infrastructure,” the FCC stated. “Hence, commercial infrastructure is more likely to be compromised in a large-scale disaster.”

The events of Sept. 11 a decade ago “certainly pointed out the importance of having backups,” said Steve Davis, senior vice president of engineering for Clear Channel Radio, which owns approximately 850 stations. “We have strengthened our backups in New York City and have extended that throughout our other markets.”

Clear Channel, which lost facilities in the WTC collapse, has embraced disaster response throughout every market, large and small, Davis said. In addition to eight regional disaster response hubs — which are home to portable units with antennas, transmitters and satellite equipment to get stations back on the air quickly — the company launched a National VSAT Safety Net in 2006, prompted largely by Hurricane Katrina.

Satellite project

“We literally have every studio and every transmitter site connected in our system. The VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) Ku-band system allows us to uplink or downlink so we can send audio and data. For example, if we lost all of our Chicago studios, we could move operations to Detroit and broadcast from those facilities and uplink to the tower site in Chicago,” Davis said.

The satellite project is the backbone to Clear Channel’s disaster plans, Davis said.

“We are retooling our disaster preparation plan this year. The market engineers are focused on making sure generators are working, backup music libraries are in place and we can receive data. We have a plan for every market. Obviously we do have more backup transmitter sites in large markets,” Davis said.

Barry Thomas, vice president of engineering for Lincoln Financial Media and former president of the Society of Broadcast Engineers, said 9/11 proved that worst-case scenarios do happen and that the results can be disastrous.

“Engineers, by nature, always consider redundancy and emergency plans. In fact, many have to dial back plans in order to fit the budget. I think the difference since 9/11 is that redundancy is in the minds of the financial decision makers, too,” Thomas said.

Lincoln Financial Media, which owns 10 FM and four AM stations, has hardened existing transmitter sites incrementally and added emergency low-power transmitting capabilities. Studio redundancy has been a more recent focus, Thomas said.

Townsquare Media has “very few fully redundant facilities” but is working actively to create more built-in redundancy, said Vice President of Engineering Dave Remund. Townsquare, formerly Regent Communications, operates 62 radio stations in mid-sized markets.

Hubbard Radio’s WTOP(AM/FM) is the Local Primary station in the nation’s capital. It has a complete off-site backup studio and reciprocal agreements with other stations to share studio space if needed. Its three transmitter sites provide redundancy; the main back-up facility is shown. Photo by Dave Garner, Hubbard Radio

“I suspect that some managers felt redundancy was just another way of saying the engineer was lazy. Redundancy was a way for the engineer not to have to get up and trek to the transmitter site at 2 a.m. to manually reconfigure the equipment to get back on the air in the event of a failure,” Remund said.

“As engineers, we always look to build in redundancy, but 9/11 did change the way those who control the purse strings think. I feel they are more receptive to proposals to spend money on redundancy.”

Location is key

In one market, Townsquare Media has identified a property with studios and several transmitters all on one property. The broadcaster is taking steps to reduce vulnerability at that location as well as all of its properties.

“In another market we have licensed an aux antenna for each FM and an AM tower located at the studio with a frequency-agile transmitter that nicely covers the central population area.” The transmitter “has been used many times and is recognized as a valuable investment,” Remund said.

Broadcast engineers contacted for this story said market location plays a role when considering the need for redundancy. WTOP(FM), formerly owned by Bonneville International and now part of Hubbard Media, is located in the nation’s capital and is viewed by some observers as crucial to the communications infrastructure in Washington.

“We reviewed critical technical systems after 9/11 and developed both short-term and long-term disaster recovery plans,” said Dave Garner, director of engineering for Hubbard Radio and its Washington cluster.

Hubbard’s WTOP is the city’s Local Primary (LP-1) station. It has a total of three transmitter sites and maintains a complete off-site backup studio, Garner said.

In addition, Hubbard Radio’s Washington cluster has reciprocal agreements with other stations in the market to share studio space if needed.

“I think any cohesive backup plan has to consider both the studio and transmitter facilities. One is useless without the other. It’s obviously very expensive to have separate redundant facilities, but we have been able to add additional backup transmitter sites since 9/11,” Garner said.

Facility Hardening Extends to PEP Stations

In parallel with what broadcasters are doing to increase facility resiliency and redundancy is what the Federal Emergency Management Agency is doing.

As RW has reported (see March 1, 2011 and Oct. 20, 2010 issues), FEMA and its IPAWS Program Management Office are in the middle of an aggressive expansion and enhancement of the Primary Entry Point system. That system is a nationwide network of broadcast stations used to distribute the president’s message in the event of a national emergency.

Damon Penn, assistant administrator of National Continuity Programs at FEMA, told the Emergency Preparedness, Response & Communications Subcommittee of the House Homeland SecurityCommittee in July that the original system of 36 PEP stations has been expanded to 49. “By the end of 2012, the number of PEP stations will increase to 77 and will directly cover over 90 percent of American people,” Penn testified.

New PEP stations are being equipped with security upgrades like double-walled fuel containers with spill containment and electromagnetic pulse-protected backup power and transmitters. Legacy PEP stations are being retrofitted to meet current PEP stations resiliency standards.

— Randy J. Stine

It’s cost that keep many small-market broadcasters from developing redundancy plans as bold as those of their big-market sisters, said Jay Mitchell, who has owned several stations and is publisher of the Small-Market Radio Newsletter.

“Immediately after 9/11 there was a flurry of activity among small-market broadcasters, but in the absence of any subsequent serious threats, many broadcasters have succumbed to human nature and they are not any more prepared to handle an emergency now than they were before 9/11. Costs are always a major obstacle for small-market broadcasters.

“However, those who are by nature focused on emergency preparedness consider those costs to be necessary, while others may consider them discretionary,” Mitchell said.

Any costs to small-market broadcasters that are not directly tied to revenue development — even emergency preparedness — are hard to justify for many small broadcasters, Mitchell said.

Not everyone acted despite the lessons of 9/11.

A medium-market engineer who asked not to be identified said, “We didn’t really take any direct actions to deal with the threat — I think, for the most part, because there are so many different ways that we could be affected that it becomes difficult if not impossible to cover every contingency. I know a few people who set up alternative studios, etc., but in most cases I can see many scenarios which would make this kind of effort a waste of time and money.”

Did the events of 9/11 prompt changes in how your organization designs its facilities and backups? Tell us at [email protected].