Broadcasters Win Priority Access To Sites Following Emergencies

LEAWOOD, KAN.—When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, WWL – at the time a Belo station — managed to stay on the air due in large part to the efforts of Rick Barber, its director of technology and broadcast media when the storm struck.

But despite building a transmitter building on 14-foot concrete columns to get above sea level, installing a 1MW generator with a 1,500 gallon feed tank and installing an additional 10,000 gallon tank as a reserve, to stay on air Barber and a well-armed cadre of private security personnel hired by Belo had to transport fuel – a scarce and valuable commodity in the wake of the hurricane — to top off the generator’s tanks.

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While Katrina is ancient history, Belo is no more and Barber has left the station, the problem of picking up the pieces after a major calamity, like a hurricane, earthquake or terrorist attack, to maintain vital, potentially lifesaving communications with the public remains.

However, with the signing of the 2018 Omnibus Spending Bill on March 23, things may be getting better for broadcasters who must grapple to stay on air in the aftermath of an emergency.

Tucked into the 2,232-page spending bill was the SANDy Act, which aims to protect the nation’s communications networks by giving radio and TV broadcasters, cable and satellite providers and wireline and mobile telephone service companies priority access to otherwise restricted areas in an emergency to make repairs and maintain service.

“Television and radio broadcasters have been trying to get priority access written into federal law since at least Hurricane Katrina, when stations were lifelines but diesel fuel deliveries to keep their generators running were blocked,” said John Lawson, executive director of the AWARN Alliance.

“The bill covers a range of communications infrastructure, but priority access for broadcast facilities may have the greatest positive impact for recovery,” said Lawson, who also serves on FEMA’s National Advisory Council Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Subcommittee.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, authored the SANDy Act and led bipartisan negotiations aimed at its passage. New Jersey was among the states that suffered communications disruptions caused by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.

In the Senate, the bill was backed by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), John Thune (R-S.D.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

NAB issued a statement lauding the bill’s passage. “NAB is grateful that this bipartisan bill acknowledging the lifeline role of local broadcasting in times of emergency is now the law of the land,” said NAB EVP Communications Dennis Wharton in the statement.

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.