Planning for the worst

When the North Tower of the World Trade Center came crashing down on Sept. 11 of last year, it exposed the broadcast industry to the liability of not having a backup system. Only WCBS-TV New York and Univision's Spanish-language station WXTV-TV were able to stay on the air because they had backup transmitters located on the Empire State Building. The rest, except for Fox, which has digital facilities on Empire, lost their entire analog and digital broadcast operations within hours.

While horrific tragedies such as this are rare, broadcasters are vulnerable to a wide array of potential disasters such as severe weather conditions and local power outages. If not anticipated, such events could severely affect a broadcaster's business.

The terrorist tragedy caused virtually every station in the United States to review its safety precautions and put new emergency plans into effect. These improved plans include increased spending for additional power generators, alternative low-power transmitter sites, UPSs and power generators, and fully redundant, fail-safe systems. It also has led stations to institute different operating procedures within studios, administrative offices and even mailrooms.

Yet, the need for additional dollars for safety at a time when overall ad revenue is down and most capital is being directed at the digital television buildout has tied the hands of many chief engineers. Some of this added cost can be built into new DTV budgets. But this prospect raises two important questions: How much protection is necessary? And how much is management willing to spend to ensure the safest and most reliable operation?

Martin Faubell, vice president of engineering at Hearst-Argyle Television, acknowledges that most of the focus in broadcasting today is on revenue growth and cost reduction. He's concerned that if broadcasters need to pay for some of the service agreements they've had historically, safety will suffer.

Among Hearst-Argyle's 27 owned and/or operated stations located across the country (from Plattsburgh, NY, to Honolulu, Hawaii), there is no general safety plan. Each station is responsible for its own procedures. When Faubell is deciding how much to allocate for safety issues, he said he finds it helpful to look at all of the variables associated with a particular market and the risk of damage due to potential outside conditions.

For example, Hearst's KMBC-TV, located in Kansas City, MO, has facilities spread out among six floors in an old downtown building. The cost to install a backup generator on every floor, given the history of power outages in that city, is not justified, Faubell said, even though there have been a few times when Kansas City lost power and parts of the station went black for several hours. But he cautions that every station should have at least one generator to keep the studio operational.

New York rebounds

After the disaster on Sept. 11, it was nearly two weeks before most New York City radio and TV stations were back on the air, with weakened signals. The outage cost them an estimated billion dollars in lost ad revenue.

Since September, all of New York's major stations have been broadcasting from the Empire State Building, but have set up a backup transmit site in Alpine, NJ, several miles north of the city. However, declaring that Empire is not suitable to full-power operation, (and thus their coverage area is compromised), these broadcasters have formed a coalition to consider another, more permanent site within the surrounding metropolitan area.

The lesson here is that stations should have an alternate transmitter site, operating as a lower-power backup that could be brought into operation on short notice. Some have suggested that this alternate site could be rented to another broadcaster and/or loaned out to a local emergency service such as EMS during normal operation to help pay for its upkeep.

It's also important to develop relationships with UHF stations to share transmitters in the event of an emergency. This was the only way that stations in New York City were able to get back on the air. Aside from their fiber-optic feed to the various cable TV companies that carry their signals, WABC-TV, WNBC-TV and others relied on the lower-channel broadcasters to carry their signal. The local Fox stations (WNYW-TV and WPIX-TV) were able to get on-air from their pre-existing digital facilities on top of the Empire State Building.

The fact that all of the stations in New York City came together to help one another speaks volumes about the character of the various chief engineers, but also provides a lesson in how cooperation in an emergency benefits everyone within a market. It's become clear that discussing emergency plans with your cross-town competitor on a regular basis is smart business.

Learning from this experience, Faubell said that Hearst-Argyle management has encouraged its chief engineers to establish reciprocal deals with competing stations in their respective markets to guard against one station going off the air.

California power

Last spring and summer, when the state of California was experiencing a wave of power outages due to the rising cost of electricity, some stations were caught off guard. Some went off the air for hours at a time. It's critical to avoid any loss of power because even the slightest interruption in service might cause viewers to switch channels.

Although stations had backup generators, the power-outage problems prompted some to make significant improvements. KVEA-TV in Corona, CA installed a new generator at its transmitter site near Los Angeles.

At KTVU-TV in San Francisco, director of engineering Ken Manley uses generators ranging from 2500W for a radio repeater to 350 kW for studio equipment. The station also has diesel-powered UPSs that automatically go into operation when the local power service fails.

Caterpillar, Kohler and Onan are the brands of gasoline- and diesel-powered generators stations use most often at the transmitter; many stations use UPS protection at the studio as well.

Adam Perez, chief engineer at KION-TV in Salinas, CA, said that because of the recurring power problems, his station now places a high priority on generator maintenance. Also, if it weren't for pollution restrictions in California, he estimates it would be more cost-efficient to run a diesel generator at the station's transmitter site than a gasoline one.

The high cost of electricity (many stations are paying thousands of dollars per month) is even causing some stations to consider alternative energy sources. Several wind generators on a mountaintop might pay for themselves over time, but they are not a reality at this point because they haven't proven to be 24-hour reliable.

Hurricanes and tornados

Stations located in the Midwest's infamous “Tornado Belt” and others in areas plagued by high winds, hurricanes and stormy weather have their own set of precautions in place. System integrators building new digital facilities in these states use heavy steel, extra guy wires and underground cabling where appropriate when installing towers and antennas. This added strength also comes in handy for co-located sites from which several stations broadcast jointly.

Since Hurricane Floyd in 2000, stations have learned to stock up with food and clothing supplies when a threat is identified. Frances Harkey, general services supervisor at WBTV-TV in Charlotte, NC, who manages the building and security services, said they've taken to storing cots, blankets and pillows for employees to sleep at the station during the most critical hours of a storm.

Floor-to-ceiling windowed studios have become popular with the public, but they expose the station to harsh elements. They often use industrial-strength double glass, but no glass is immune to breakage. So these are now routinely boarded up with plywood in the hours leading up to a storm.

Conducting emergency drills is also important to avoid catastrophe. Florida-based Hearst-Argyle stations in West Palm Beach, Orlando and Tampa, FL, perform annual, highly detailed drills to practice emergency procedures for when a transmission tower goes down or the power goes out. It's through these types of simulated emergencies that mistakes can be made without adverse effect and a good contingency plan created.

Winter conditions

WMTW-TV in Poland Spring, ME, routinely deals with adverse icing of its antenna and transmission lines. In the past, the station had been broadcasting from the area's highest peak on Mt. Washington, NH. But it recently relocated its transmitter to West Baldwin, ME, to avoid the harsh conditions of the New Hampshire wilderness. Broadcasting from what is now the largest tower in Maine at 1667 feet (constructed by Irving, TX-based SpectraSite Broadcast Group), the station is using dual Caterpillar diesel generators that operate in parallel and redundant transmission lines to broadcast its signal to viewers.

As is the case with many stations located in cold climates, chief engineer Jack Connor and his engineering team have designed a series of “ice bridges” suspended above the transmission-line cables to prevent melting pieces of ice from falling directly onto the cables and snapping them or perhaps injuring someone on the ground.

The station's coverage is sometimes affected by ice collecting on its 70-foot dielectric multi-panel antenna, but there's not much the station can do about it. Connor has considered a single-channel, traveling-wave antenna inside a radome, but WMTW-TV needs the extra panel space.

The use of de-icers on antennas is pointless in the bitter cold of a Maine winter because they simply create a layer of water between the metal of the antenna and the external ice crust, which brings more problems.

In addition to heavier steel and more cross bracing for the tower, Warren Construction Group helped Connor build a two-story, reinforced-concrete transmission building in less than a year. It's complete with several transmission rooms, two 10,000-gallon fuel tanks, and a generator room capable of generating over 800 kW of electricity per hour (which is much more than they need). The ceiling of the building includes two inches of rubber tire padding to protect it from ice dropping off of the tower.

During the design stage, Connor said he overbuilt the tower to hold as much hardware as possible to suit the station's needs and to develop income from other stations that might locate there in the future.

WMTW-TV is now broadcasting an analog signal from West Baldwin, but they plan to go digital by May 1 if weather permits the installation of a new transmitter and antenna. If the weather doesn't cooperate, the station will ask for an extension to go digital by midsummer.

Re-sorting the mail

The threat of the U.S. mail system being used to target television stations has also caused stations to rethink how they deal with visitors and outside correspondence. As a new, general policy among New York City-based stations (as well as the local newspapers), no mail will be opened without a return address clearly written on the outside of an envelope.

At Jefferson-Pilot-Communications-owned WBTV-TV and its sister WBTV-DT, new mailroom procedures now call for all mail and overnight packages to be sorted in a ventilated area totally isolated from the studios and to be delivered to specific employees only after it has been thoroughly checked. WBTV-TV's Harkey said that her station has worked closely with the local police department to identify exposed areas. She recently had the police tour the station and report on how it could be more secure.

Other procedures suggested by police include new security gates, the cutting of lower tree limbs to provide greater vision of the station's property, and an extensive security-camera system that includes 24-hour videotaping of daily activities. A new policy also mandates that no visitor is allowed past the station's lobby without an employee escort.

Insurance policies

There's no doubt that manufacturers of transmitters and related equipment become a major factor when disaster strikes. By all accounts, Harris, Larcan, Thales Broadcast & Multimedia and others were instrumental in providing replacement transmitters to get New York City stations back on the air. Most even deferred payment and spent substantial resources to help.

Executives at these companies suggest that when a station is purchasing specific transmission equipment, it should also discuss contingency plans. Stations might also want to purchase replacement parts that have been known to fail during normal operation.

Chief engineers might also look into the new generation of low-cost, low-power transmitters that will be introduced at the NAB convention next month. These are ideally suited to be installed as backup systems.

For station management, make sure your station's insurance policy includes a wide variety of disaster situations. When the World Trade Center came down, there was some discussion about whether New York stations were protected against a building collapse. In the short term, it was acknowledged that they were covered for the physical equipment (e.g., replacement of transmitter, antennas and transmission lines), but negotiations are still pending regarding how much of the millions in installation costs used to build the analog and digital facilities on top of the North Tower will be refunded.

In the end, no emergency plan can protect against a tragedy as monumental as the Sept. 11 attack on New York City, but with careful planning and some extra expense, stations can prevent, or at least manage most emergencies. Remember the old adage, it's always better to be safe than sorry.

Michael Grotticelli has covered all aspects of the broadcast industry for over 10 years. He can be reached