We received numerous responses to a column by TV Technology Senior Editor Deborah McAdams in the Sept. 23 issue regarding L.A.-area broadcasters’ coverage of the Station Fire in early September. One reader, Hans Laetz, a former L.A. area broadcaster, had his own perspective on the coverage, which we decided to run here in full:
In the Sept. 23 issue of TV Technology Deborah McAdams wrote that the recent Station Fire narrowly missed burning Los Angeles TV towers at Mount Wilson, and that if the towers were lost, potentially 1.7 million people would have been without access to emergency information.
Sadly, this is not correct. Whether Mount Wilson burned or not, every one of the 5.7 million TV households in Los Angeles was completely without access to emergency information via TV during that fire’s critical stages. This was true whether they used mountaintop signals or cable/satellite feeds for their sets. Had the transmitters burned, not one person would have lost an important conduit for emergency evacuation information.
The EAS in Los Angeles is a never-used joke, and not one L.A. TV or FM station broke regular coverage on this fire as it spread across the mountains on that fateful Saturday and Sunday.
The fire broke out on Wednesday, Aug. 26, while L.A. TV stations were still in full-bore Michael Jackson funeral coverage mode. But it was not until the following Friday night that the small fire blossomed into a full threat. The Los Angeles Times now reports that the U.S. Forest Service seriously underestimated the fire’s potential, botched the initial response and perhaps lulled TV stations into complacency. But the towering “pyrocumulus” cloud that rose, Hiroshima-like, over Los Angeles on that sunny Saturday should have been a wakeup call to Channels 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 34 and 52. It wasn’t.
People living in 6,200 homes along a 10-mile swath of foothills were evacuated due to the fire that weekend. Those people were in immediate danger, and they were evacuated without any direction or help from TV broadcasters. Eighty-nine houses burned! Had there been heavy winds, tens of thousands of people would have been in a firestorm, and L.A. TV would have been in regular programming.
I wrote to the L.A. Observer Web page with this scan, which has been quoted widely: “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.
No TV station went live with continuous coverage until Monday morning, nearly 54 hours after evacuations began. Only all-news KNX radio offered 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 the only continuous coverage. Two other stations, KFI and KPCC, also had reporters there that weekend for sporadic reports.
Californians rely on TV pictures to see how close a fire is, and we make decisions on evacuating or rushing to help others based on that critical data. But for the first time, panicked residents saw fire near their houses and were unable to access any live TV chopper shots of where the fire was. Dozens of blogs, citizen newsgathering sites and telephone trees were alight with the same desperate messages: “Where is the fire? Where are the TV station choppers?” Citizens were forced to rely on volunteer sites like Altadenablog, which did a heroic job telling people where the fire was, a job that the TV stations refused to do.
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 Los Angeles TV station 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.”
Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara, herself an evacuee, wrote: “Over the weekend, it was a virtual, and inexplicable, news blackout.” 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.”
EAS, as usual, was not activated in Los Angeles. It is important to know that L.A. emergency authorities relied on sirens, Reverse 911 and cops 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 were never activated.
Ask the people next to the Station Fire and they will tell you: we’re on our own in L.A., too. I’m glad they saved Mount Wilson, but as far as relaying emergency information, the historic observatory up there is more useful.
The author worked as a TV news assignments editor and operations manager at KABC, KCBS and KTLA for 23 years, just graduated from law school, and is an environmental law consultant who occasionally covers breaking news for a wire service.