Media Security Reliability Council pursues electronic homeland security
|Putting Best Practices Into Action|
|Thomas Fitzpatrick, deputy commissioner of the New York Fire Dept. on 9/11, was a major source of firsthand information for the MSRC. Now a vice president with New York-based Giuliani Partners, Fitzpatrick outlined communication security priorities from a perspective of experience.|
"Government crisis communication-including all official warnings and alerts-is accomplished through systems that are typically owned and operated by private companies," he said. "Time is the critical factor in preparing, responding to, and stabilizing an incident. Disaster communication and warning is, in reality, a public/private partnership."
Broadcasters, satellite and cable operators play a major role in delivering risk communications and warnings to citizens because of their capability to provide ongoing real-time coverage of events, Fitzpatrick said.
"It is crucial to national security and public safety to preserve the ability for government to effectively ensure that... information can be communicated to the public during a time of crisis," he said.
"While keeping all stations on-air is most desirable, ensuring that some [broadcast] stations remain on-air to serve the community is an absolute necessity," he continued.
Consequently, community-level planning and coordination is the cost-effective means to achieve the necessary infrastructure redundancy and the geographic diversity of equipment and facilities.
"There is greater need now than ever before for 'joint planning' [among] local levels of government and private industry... involving seamless procedures and systems developed from the ground up-as part of a national scheme-which includes planning and exercising for technical, natural and man-made disasters. There is no better example of the type of planning that is needed than a media-based risk communication, hazard warning and crisis information process."
-- John Merli
When the World Trade Centers in Manhattan were violently razed on Sept. 11, 2001, the nation's loftiest antenna farm, serving the largest U.S. television market was obliterated. Just as the destruction of the Twin Towers awakened the world to a new state of heightened vigilance, the sudden cessation of over-the-air TV and radio signals in New York had a likewise effect on local broadcasters.
In March 2002 -- six months after 9/11 -- the FCC created the Media Security and Reliability Council (MSRC), a federal advisory committee formed to issue plans "to assure the optimal reliability, robustness and security of the electronic media" in emergencies.
Given that the key to effective emergency communications is usually local, much of the MSRC's intentions were aimed squarely at local broadcasters.
"The reality is that TV broadcasters have done a great job in dealing with local emergencies even when their most basic operations have been destroyed," said Bruce Allan, president and general manager of Broadcast Communications at Harris Corp., who chairs the MSRC's Communications Infrastructure Security Working Group. "September 11th galvanized many in the media community to address more systemically the necessity of planning a response before the next crisis occurs."
FCC Chairman Michael Powell has applauded the MSRC's work to date, but he recently made it clear to broadcasters that having an unrehearsed plan on paper "is not really a plan at all, as far as I'm concerned."
Allan agreed, saying Powell expects the MSRC to provide broadcasters with "tools to identify and take advantage of redundancies, to create templates for assembling disaster recovery plans, and to underscore the importance of rehearsing those plans."
Allan said his group believes all local media "should collaborate to increase their collective geographic emergency operations."
He said a key phrase in the working group's final report would be "collective capabilities" of media companies working in tandem.
"Inter-industry agreements [in each market] need to be part of the solution," he said.
Glenn Reitmeier, chairman of the Prevention Subcommittee in Allan's working group, said the level of required cooperation means "we're talking here about considerations that reach beyond the competitive aspects of local news."
Reitmeier, vice president for Technology at NBC, said examples of unorthodox cooperative efforts would include radio and TV broadcasters retransmitting audio of emergency information; translation of various TV/radio signals into Spanish, Chinese and other market-relevant languages; and coordination by broadcasters and cable systems using on-screen text updates and other data to increase uniformity-of-message and universal access.
While the final report from the MRSC is expected this Spring, 88 best practices have already been identified. (These are available in several documents posted at www.fcc.gov/MSRC .)
Though the practices cover a wide range of priorities, FCC Media Bureau Video Division Chief Barbara Kreisman said one of their common links is they strive to address the question: What can be done to further overcome our vulnerability in catastrophic emergencies? She pointed out that some of the MSRC's recommendations urging total cooperation between agencies and otherwise-competing media were already tested, in part, successfully during the major power blackout in Northeastern cities in August 2003.
Also, despite its laborious struggle to gain a foothold in broadcasting, digital technology likely will play a key role in advancing communication services during widespread emergencies. Mark Erstling, COO of the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS), an MRSC member, said dozens of PBS stations around the country are working with local governmental agencies to use datacasting to provide local emergency services.
"It's important to note that digital datacasting is scalable, secure and instantaneous," Erstling said. "We're now working on the development and deployment of a new interconnection system that could be used as a backbone for a new EAS."
APTS has a Homeland Security Coalition of 48 stations, which includes nine state networks, according to Erstling.
"We're working with these stations to help them partner with their local and state governments to provide critical services that include emergency communications and training for first responders and the public," he said.
Shaun Sheehan, Tribune's longtime rep in Washington and the MSRC's liaison coordinator, said, there were far more federal agencies involved in this than just the FCC.
"We needed a central clearinghouse for implementing emergency preparedness effectively, and that quite naturally fell to the Department of Homeland Security. In fact, [Homeland Security Secretary] Tom Ridge came to one of our meetings, and," Sheehan underscored, "he took notes."
"What the committee recommends and carries out in our final report will be around for a long time to come," he said.
For more information, MSRC maintains its own a Web site with considerable homeland security resources for broadcasters at www.mediasecurity.org