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9/11/2009 4:29 AM  RssIcon

McAdamsLos Angeles just came dangerously and almost unknowingly close to losing its Emergency Alert System. The Angeles National Forest Station Fire took out around 250 square miles and came within shouting distance of Mt. Wilson, where virtually all the city’s TV and radio transmitters reside. Even if the tower and building structures, many of them concrete, survived, power sources and transmission lines were vulnerable to fire. A telephone line through which the Mt. Wilson Observatory transmitted live Web shots went down for several days.

There were folks who commented on the coverage here to the effect that the transmitters didn’t matter much. The majority of households have cable or satellite, and therefore would have been unaffected by the loss of broadcast TV transmissions.

Such was the attitude in Congress when the DTV transition deadline was established a couple of years ago; less so this year, when the new administration had to deal with it. But the attitude remains. Who cares about broadcast television? It would sometimes appear that network executives don’t considering the loss of reception many of us experienced post-transition. Fox and ABC here in L.A. have generally given me a “that’s too bad” brush-off.

We all know the broadcast industry missed the boat with DTV, when it could have hammered home the message of free, multichannel service. I was told confidentially that broadcasters didn’t promote their own service more for fear of losing advertising from cable operators. I will not share here my thoughts about that particular excuse; they’re rather course.

There are still millions of homes in the country that rely exclusively on over-the-air television for everyday reception. I’ve never seen demographic details, but I suspect they’re a very mixed bag. The assumption on Capital Hill and among many is that broadcast-reliant households are inhabited by toothless hillbillies, confused senior citizens and illegal immigrants. I am none of the above, and I don’t have a pay TV service.

The reality of over-the-air reliance is actually much greater than lobby-stoked hot air would let on. Telecom companies, which still have the most powerful lobbyists on Capital Hill, have long agitated for the spectrum occupied by broadcasters and have long shaped the debate around broadcast TV. Thus, the perception that only a handful of destitute slackers rely on it persists, quite inaccurately.

Every household in the United States depends on broadcast TV and radio. It remains the nation’s singular Emergency Alert System, and is the only one that can reach more people than any other communications platform in existence. Not everybody tweets, texts, Facebooks, e-mails or otherwise has their nose buried in an iPhone. Even if they did, these platforms depend on networks with more nodes and therefore more vulnerability than broadcasting (though the Station Fire was a searing lesson in singularities).

As unfashionable as broadcasting is, and as passé as it seems to be, it still represents one of the most important infrastructures in this country. The people of New Orleans know this. The people of Los Angeles came dangerously close to finding out.
 

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11 comment(s) so far...


McAdams On: Mt. Wilson

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By on   1/29/2011 9:39 AM

McAdams On: Mt. Wilson

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By on   1/29/2011 1:04 PM

McAdams On: Mt. Wilson

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By on   1/31/2011 3:37 PM

McAdams On: Mt. Wilson

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By on   1/31/2011 4:48 PM
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McAdams On: Mt. Wilson

Thanks for all of your feedback; you all make very good points which I appreciate. This specific blog forum does not purport to "report," but is merely a venue for editorializing. I in no way position what has been written here as reporting, Mr. Ames. Again, thank you all!

By on   9/14/2009 5:49 AM
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McAdams On: Mt. Wilson

There's a major error here, due to the frequently repeated misconception that "virtually ALL the LA region's radio and television stations' transmitters" are here." For one thing, the AM—repeat AM stations—serving the LA area are NOT on top of Mount Wilson. What's up there are FM—repeat, FM stations—and most of the basin's television transmitters. LA's two Primary EAS stations are both AM... KFI and KNX, two 50KW giants that have transmitters in separated parts of the flat, more urban parts of the LA basin. http://www.sbe47.org/LACOO_REV_082503.pdf Both KFI and KNX are news or news/talk stations and as such are the places that Los Angelenos are likely to tune in for disaster-related information. These stations are also the stations that all other broadcasters—AM, FM and TV—must monitor. The EAS activations come through the National Weather Service, according to the LA EAS Plan: EAS ACTIVATION REQUESTED messages will be transmitted over the National Weather Radio (KLOX/NWS), Oxnard, on 162.55 MHz. So to assert that "Los Angeles just came dangerously and almost unknowingly close to losing its Emergency Alert System" is clearly inaccurate. The region's AM station transmitters are widely scattered around the basin, and are not likely to all be off the air due to a singular calamity such as fire sweeping over the top of Mount Wilson. The last two paragraphs of your article DO clearly point out the value of broadcast media during emergencies. And the value of AM broadcasters to a region should be easy to understand via my comments, here. What is needed within the broadcast ownership community is the ability to make sure that when a major disaster of wide range occurr— LA's case, something like the Northridge Earthquake—that ALL stations become information resources instead of transmitting EAS messages and then merrily resuming "normal" programming. Too many stations across the country are un-attended jukeboxes or routing switchers, with lights on and nobody home. And I don't think that reinforces the value of broadcasting to the communities stations are licensed to serve. Ted

By on   9/11/2009 6:50 AM
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McAdams On: Mt. Wilson

Nice way to back off. Next time if you feel the need to go "on the record" with an opinion based editorial shield get your facts straight and at least PRETEND to know what your talking about. I think we'll call you the "glass blog" from now on - because you're easy to see through and you shatter under pressure.

By on   9/14/2009 6:46 AM
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McAdams On: Mt. Wilson

Your thoughts on the topic are "coarse," not "course." Spell check is no substitute for proofreading.

By on   9/28/2009 3:10 AM
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McAdams On: Mt. Wilson

Why in the world would you, with all of your experience and journalistic integrity, write a story that fails to provide the readers with a complete understanding of the situation at hand.? Better yet, why would you use a model of success to further a personal perspective? Integrity, the commitment to reporting factually and completely without bias, is the mainstay of trusted reporting. And it is precisely this lack of professional standards that is leading to the world's mistrust of citizen journalists causing the public to "take with a grain of salt" the information provided on the vast majority of today's sites including Wikipedia. While I agree, personally, with your underlying belief that over-the-air broadcast remains a vital component to public education, edification and entertainment, my personal feelings have no place in a story like this and, respectfully, neither should yours. The fact of the matter is that while Mt. Wilson was indeed threatened by the Station Fire, the incident commander and air boss, with the support of the Board of Supervisors, the Mayor and City Council, committed all possible ground and air resources to the preservation of the hilltop facility. Thankfully the resources, secondary to an exceptional state of preparedness, a fluid plan of attack created with multiple layers of redundancy, favorable atmospheric conditions, relative lack of wind and favorable wind direction when it was present, were sufficient to spare the Los Angeles landmark. But make no mistake, foresight, planning and competent execution saved Mt. Wilson and no less a complete plan was and continues to be in place relative to First Responder and public communications. Without exception, when the Station Fire was reported by the three major networks to be “close to Mt. Wilson”, each and every one of the networks reported that Mt. Wilson was home to television and radio stations for the Greater Los Angeles Basin. That was fine even though, being the masters of the unstated, their statements while true, left ample room for the general public to infer that they may lose their television signal. But when the networks went on to state, without qualification, that the "City's and County's Fire and Law Enforcement communications were also situated on the mountain” failing to add that Los Angels no longer uses them for official communications, they allowed the public to infer that the City and County would be unable to communicate with each other much less the mutual aid that responded from around the country and thus they would be unable to protect the citizens of the Basin. This was not OK. What this was was little more than journalistic irresponsibility. The public is, because of the proliferation of uninformed citizen journalists, growing rightly suspicious of news delivered via the Internet be it blog, web site, twitter or the rainbow of other conduits available today. If for no other reason than by virtue of your experience, you owe a debt to those who have gone before you, be they the local news guys like Bill Keene with his comical reports and corny puns or Michaela Pereira who came down from San Francisco to work at LA's own local KTLA. In reporting on the fire, she got her point across but it was never at the cost of her integrity. They never failed to tell the whole story whether or not it served their personal opinion or not. Respectfully, the debt you owe is to treat every story with the same respect they did and do by reporting the complete story even when it fails to support your personal position. If the City or County's wrong, then they're wrong and should be called on the carpet as my father used to say for it. However, when there are few, within or without the confines of Los Angeles’ First Responders, who don't know that the Board of Supervisors and the City Council fought long and hard to institute a reverse 911 that is far more pervasive and effective than television relative to reaching the general public, it can be reasonably expected that you knew this as well and simply failed to report the whole story. This system went on-line in 2009 and today, both the City and County are looking at other layers like Twitter and other push technologies to notify the public of danger thereby building a multi-layer, redundant methodology for public protection. If you knew it and didn’t choose to include it, then again, with respect, you’re no better than the networks who failed to inform the public that while the communications towers were indeed sited at Mt. Wilson, they were no longer in use. On the other hand , if you didn’t know this, then, again respectfully, I would urge you to check, double-check and certify your facts before you go to print. There were close to 5,000 First Responders on that fire, many of whom remain on the lines today. We responded in record time and worked a complete, multi-layered, redundant plan that resulted in, acknowledging the horrific and regrettable loss of 2 firefighter brothers and almost 70 structures, the containment of a fire that, without this unified effort and massive response, a working reverse 911 and the efforts of law enforcement putting themselves in danger going door-to-door to notify residents as is customary in a multi-layered public safety plan, would have consumed far more land, lives and property that it has to date. At one time, the analog towers were the best form of communication until the digital age gave birth to a new First Responder communication system and a new public communication system. Had the towers gone down, while it would have removed a layer of public communications, it would only have been the first layer leaving the reverse 911 system and First Responders to handle the public notification. Finally, as to your selection of New Orleans as an example of “people who know this” while “The people of Los Angeles came dangerously close to finding out.” you couldn’t have picked a worse example to support your attack on Los Angeles. In 1999, then Mayor Richard Riordan hired Atlanta, Georgia’s Director of Emergency Preparedness, Mr. Ellis Stanley, to head up Los Angeles’ own EPD or Emergency Preparedness Department. The EPD is part of the City’s Emergency Management Department which is responsible for the coordinated responses of no less than 13 City departments, divisions and agencies as well as integrating the response of the County’s assets and those of the many mutual aid cities, counties and state resources that muster and respond in times of emergency. Ellis’, together with his friend and counterpart in New Orleans and other professionals in the arena of Public Safety, acted to develop the Atlanta Emergency Program for the Olympics which turned out to be a model of public safety performing perfectly despite the explosion of a bomb in a public park; a model which he then brought to and tailored for Los Angeles. Since 1999, Ellis, together with Los Angeles’ Mayor(s) and Fire and Police chiefs, has led the effort to make Los Angeles the safest city in the world leaving his position in 2009 after he had done just that. The multi-layered plans that today protect the citizens, visitors and yes, the First Responders of the Greater Los Angeles Basin are the brainchildren of Ellis, Los Angels, Atlanta, New Orleans, the leadership of the Board of Supervisors, Members City Council and Mayors of this area. While the department is today headed by former Fire Captain Jim Featherstone, he continues Ellis’ fight for the most complete and modern communication and public safety plan in the world and if it sounds like I have a personal stake in this, I do. In fact, I make it a point to not respond to any individual commentary but with you, well, let’s just say I expected more of a person with your journalistic experience. As I said before, when the City or County is wrong, then it’s wrong and it’s your responsibility to exercise the proper oversight by reporting that which is wrong. But when the City is right, when this City and this County do the best that they can, at a time of substantial budgetary challenges, to safeguard all who call the area either home or a destination, when 5000 First Responders work 12, 14, 16 hours a day or night putting their lives on the line for you and every other person in the vicinity of an emergency such that the emergency doesn’t become a catastrophy, then you owe an equal measure of accuracy in your writing. In closing, if you truly want a “money line” to close your article, then you might think of replacing “The people of New Orleans know this. The people of Los Angeles came dangerously close to finding out” with, “Despite the despicable, arson act of a single individual whose conscious disregard for the health, safety and welfare of more than 7M people, an act which caused the wholesale destruction of 200k acres of one of America’s and the world’s most precious resources, our National Forest, an act which caused the death of two heroic Brothers in Arms whose friends, families and peers will miss them dearly, an act which destroyed the homes, possessions and lives of ore than 70 families, an act which will cause the taxpayers an estimated $60M, an act which, despite the losses, was contained to the point that injuries and fatalities were confined to First Responders and not the general public, an act that brought out the very best in the people of Los Angeles as evidenced by the countless hours of selfless volunteer work performed by anything-but-average-citizens, the Red Cross and other volunteer organizations and an act that was anticipated by the City and the County whose action precedent to the act served to protect the citizens of and visitors to this great City wholly and without exception, the City and County of Los Angeles were able to contain the largest single incident fire in the history of the second largest City in the Nation. While there exist innumerable instances where the government could have done things differently, this isn’t one of them.” But then again, that’d be way too long. Perhaps you could just say, to yourself of course, “Next time I won’t bring personal perspectives to bear on a very real issue at the expense of a City and County which just SAVED the lives of countless people and COST the lives of two of this Nation’s finest.” Personal issues have no place in public reporting and whether or not analog television is present in a community has nothing to do with Los Angeles’ public safety profile. It is second to none and, in the face of mounting budgetary crises, this speaks volumes…or perhaps you know a better one. If you do, let me know. You can reach me on the fireline and don’t worry, our radios function really well and so do the cell sites because I’m writing to you. Imagine, all this without an analog signal.

By on   9/11/2009 11:42 AM
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McAdams On: Mt. Wilson

Give it a rest- You really can't expect experienced engineers to support your "live in fear" attitude of a fire on one hill (Mt. Wilson). Engineers thrive on redundancy and routinely exploit "outside of the box" solutions for all problems that are thrown their way. Just as you stated; over the air would have been interrutped, but I would be VERY curious to see how fast an answer to the problem would have been presented with an technical solution by an engineer that (rather than place blame) thinks in the moment and resolves the issue that you are so fearful of.

By on   9/11/2009 2:10 PM
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McAdams On: Mt. Wilson

First off, the very first radio station to go off the air during this fire was the primary NWS station for southern California, the 162.55 MHz NWS station on Mt. Lukens. I sure hope the LP-1 stations down the line were aware of this. Now, here's a letter to the editor, now that this column was printed over in TV Technology and I just can't let it sit: Deborah McAdams writes in TV Technology that the recent Station Fire narrowly missed burning Los Angeles TV towers, and potentially 1.7 million people would have been without access to emergency information. This is not correct. Every one of the 5.7 million TV households in Los Angeles were completely without access to emergency information via TV during that fire, even though the equipment was largely working. The simple fact is, that had the transmitters on top of Mount Wilson been lost, not one person would have lost an important conduit for emergency evacuation information, because not one L.A. TV or FM station broke regular coverage on this fire for its first two days. Before the broadcast industry breaks its arm patting itself on the back for the EAS assets that were saved on Mount Wilson, a few facts are important to know: (1) First, know that people living in 6,200 homes were evacuated due to the fire, those people were in immediate danger, and they were evacuated without any direction or help from TV broadcasters. Had there been heavy winds, tens of thousands of people would have been in a firestorm, and LA TV would have been in regular programming. (2) The TV and FM stations that were protected by the valiant firefighters on Mt. Wilson were relaying regular programming, much of it informercials, as the fire inconveniently spread out above the city on a Saturday morning. No TV station went live with continuous coverage until MONDAY morning, nearly 54 hours after homes began being evacuated. Only all-news KNX went with continuous coverage from reporters Saturday and Sunday, and its 1935-era technology in the form of 50,000-watts of canyon and buzz-piercing, nondirectional, glorious analog AM from its antenna 30 miles away in Torrance was a godsend. (3) Dozens of blogs, citizen news-gathering sites and telephone trees were alight with the same desperate messages: "Where is the fire? Where are the TV station choppers?" (4) A member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors was so disgusted by the lack of live TV coverage that he publicly lashed out at the fact that tens of thousands of people were in direct danger, in the path of fire, and NOT ONE station Los Angeles provided live coverage. "There were a large number of evacuations taking place, people and animals were in danger, and people had no information of where to go," supervisor Mike Antonovich said in an interview. "I'm upset. The media let people down during a horrendous fire, one of the worst in the county's history." (5) Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara, herself an evacuee, wrote: "Over the weekend, it was a virtual, and inexplicable, news blackout." (6) Whittier Daily News columnist Robert Rector: "Amid the triumphs and tragedies that these sort of disasters provide, there was scathing criticism. The media - specifically television - is being assailed for their coverage of the fire, or lack of it, particularly in its beginning stages." (7) At the Saturday morning emergency news conference to order evacuations, only KNX it carried live. There was one TV mike flag on the tree, and it was connected to a hard drive in a camera, not to an ENG or SNG truck. (8) At 5 p.m. on the Saturday of the fire, it was I who wrote to the LA Observed web page: "It's 5 p.m. on Saturday, the biggest fire in years is in the backyards of thousands of homes from Lake View Terrace to Pasadena, and NOT ONE Los Angeles TV station is providing continuous coverage. A few minutes ago, KTTV popped on with a brief update after the Dodger game, then returns to 'Whacked Out Sports.' KCBS did a half hour at 4:30 then went to an NFL preseason game. Sister KCAL is in syndicated schlock. KNBC: regular programming, some sort of taped feature show on hot cars at Mt. Pinos. KABC: live coverage from ABC News of the Kennedy interment. KTLA: some show about warlocks and evil spirits." (9) Finally, to add insult to injury, the only radio station to go off the air the first day of the fire was KWO37, the National Weather Service radio station at 162.55 MHz ... the primary EAS relay for the entire Southern California region, the one station that everyone is supposed to monitor. It lost poor-quality telco STL the first day of the fire, and of course there was no backup. Did any engineer notice the static? Were the LP-1 relay stations, KNX and KFI, aware they of this? EAS was, as usual, not used in Los Angeles. It is important to know that L.A. emergency authorities relied on sirens, reverse 911 and people knocking on doors to get the word out. The EAS system has NEVER been activated for a major emergency in Los Angeles. During the riots, the floods, the earthquakes, the old L.A. EBS and the new EAS have never been activated. There isn't one L.A. TV station assignment desk that has an EAS monitor of any sort, period. I've been at them all (except Fox, and I bet it doesn't have one either.) Further, for most of the areas affected directly by the fire, relying on EAS from Mt. Wilson would have been a costly mistake in this fire area, which has been written off by the TV industry as far as OTA TV because it is in the foothill fringe. In the old analog days, lousy NTSC signals worked there. With the ATSC cliff effect, those fringe areas are completely useless for OTA TV. Millions of people in south Orange County, the foothill communities, Santa Clarita, Malibu, Ventura County, the Inland Empire and the Antelope Valley are out of range for OTA TV from Mount Wilson due to terrain shielding. In the old days, before local TV had signed off of breaking news coverage, it would have been asinine to interrupt eight TV stations doing live information with a canned EAS announcement read over a phone line by some sheriff's dispatcher. After this abysmal, shameful performance by the ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, Tribune and Univision-owned flagship stations here in the nation's number two TV market, a phone call from the command post would have been instructive. This was our Minot ND, and LA lucked out and no one got hurt as a result of the TV news self-inflicted blackout. Consolidation and budget issues left LA as naked as Minot was that bad night in 2003 when the radio stations were all automated and the sheriff couldn't evacuate people after a toxic rail spill. Ask the people next to the Station Fire and they will tell you: we're on our own in LA, too. I'm glad they saved Mt. Wilson, but as far as relaying emergency information, the historic observatory up there is more useful. Hans Laetz 23-year LA TV news veteran, now in law school Zuma Beach CA

By on   9/26/2009 3:51 PM

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