Emergency response

A couple of recent news items caught my attention and imagination. Maybe you noticed, too. Both have to do with emergency situations.

First was the fire alarm about 10 seconds into the NBC Nightly News on Nov. 29. If you didn’t see it, Brian Williams handled it like any accomplished news anchor who isn’t directly threatened by smoke or flames would do, and the show went on. Eyeballs rolled and clever chatter covered the alarm and what must have been a full-scale behind-the-scenes meltdown. It was an embarrassing moment for NBC, but the show went on as if nothing happened.

Fire alarms always spark debates in television stations. Nearly all facilities have plenty of fire safety equipment, including sprinklers, extinguishers and fire alarms, and many schedule a regular fire drill every so often. Most local fire departments and insurance carriers insist on it.

Usually, fire drills are scheduled around live newscasts and productions. But in the spirit of Murphy’s Law and all that makes broadcasting so much fun, not this time at NBC. As the alarm was blaring, Williams maintained his on-air cool. He explained, “There is no danger to us.” And he said the alarm was a scheduled “announcement.”

My question to you is: How do people in your facility react to fire alarms? Does everyone take them seriously? Does your station have a policy in place defining who leaves the building, who stays and who makes that decision? These questions are beyond the scope of this newsletter, but the NBC example should be considered or at least mentioned at the next department head meeting at your station. Lives and lawsuits could hang in the balance.

What’s more exciting than a RWT?
Broadcasters have been rehearsing for a national emergency for nearly 60 years. Emergency broadcasting was officially introduced on Dec. 10, 1951, when the Control of Electromagnetic Radiation system, known as CONELRAD, was established by President Harry Truman. The original idea was to prevent enemy bombers from homing in on cities by using radio or TV transmitters as beacons. It was also supposed to provide essential civil defense information to the general public. The technical concept of CONELRAD was simple. A CONELRAD alert or test consisted of shutting the transmitter off for five seconds, returning to the air for five seconds, again shutting off for five seconds, and then transmitting a tone for 15 seconds. Of course, not all transmitters could handle that kind of plate-on, plate-off, plate-on stress. This was but one of the first recognized problems of CONELRAD.

Another war story
I once worked at a primary CONELRAD radio station that normally operated on 610KHz. The transmitter also had a switchable 640 crystal for CONELRAD. There was a fallout shelter bunker about 100ft from the transmitter building, with thick cement walls, all about 20ft to 30ft underground. It has since been filled in. But during the ’50s and early ’60s, a 100ft cement hallway from the transmitter basement lead to a cement room with two turntables, three microphones, a file cabinet with who knows what, a couple of folding tables, some swivel chairs, and numerous 55-gallon drums of drinking water, soda crackers and C-rations. The mayor and other officials were supposed to broadcast emergency instructions from there. My first question? Where was the bathroom? Oh yeah, it was up hall, up the stairs on the first floor of the transmitter building.

In those days, an official CONELRAD receiver sounded an alarm (typically a buzzer and a relay closure) when the carrier of the station being monitored went off twice. More sophisticated units detected the tones, too. Such receivers were found in broadcast stations, schools and other public facilities. In 1957, the FCC even required ham radio operators to verify broadcast stations were on the air every 10 minutes. If not, hams were required to stop transmitting.

As ICMB missiles replaced enemy bombers, CONELRAD was replaced by the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) in 1963. CONELRAD was designed only for national emergencies. The EBS was designed to be useful during local civil emergencies and severe weather as well.

The EBS was later replaced by the Emergency Alert System (EAS) in 1997. The primary difference between the two is that the EAS is designed to allow the President of the United States to speak directly to Americans using the EAS. The EAS is managed jointly by FEMA, NOAA/NWS and the FCC.

Let’s fast forward to Sept. 11, 2001. I remember that as the events of that day unfolded, threats and rumors of more threats proliferated. My news department didn’t know anything more than anxious viewers did. Many at my station were asking, “Are we not being attacked? What happened to the EAS?” We would have re-booted our EAS receiver had we not been monitoring everyone else who apparently was asking the same question.

I still wonder about that. But as the technology for emergency communications continues to improve, the first ever National EAS test on Nov. 9 this year identified what one official described as “a few gaps.” Better to identify them now rather than panic later. Of course, broadcasters learned about testing, plans and back-up plans years ago when the first transmitter went off the air unexpectedly.

This is only a test
FEMA’s website describes the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). IPAWS was signed into law in 2006. Its vision is the “Timely Alert and Warning to American People in the preservation of life and property.” IPAWS promises to diversify and modernize the EAS. Who can’t be for that?

According to the website, “IPAWS will enable federal, state, territorial, tribal, and local alert and warning emergency communication officials to access multiple broadcast and other communications pathways for the purpose of creating and activating alert and warning messages related to any hazard impacting public safety and well-being.”

In the spirit of IPAWS, FEMA has a PLAN to essentially bring EAS to cell phones. PLAN is the acronym for the Personal Localized Alerting Network, and you can read about it here.

In brief, PLAN complements the existing EAS structure at a local level. Current cell phones can only receive PLAN messages if the devices have the ability and users opt-in to the service. Soon, if not already, all new cell phones and smart phones will be able to receive emergency messages. This is not that unlike AM radios made between 1953 and 1963 which, by law, showed CONELRAD frequencies marked on the dial by the triangle-in-circle symbol.

Sprint has already announced its support, and other wireless carriers are sure to follow. PLAN allows government officials to send emergency alerts to all subscribers with PLAN-capable devices if their wireless carrier participates in the program. Consumers do not need to sign up for this service. Alerts are free. Customers do not pay to receive PLAN alerts and according to many sources, they will not be able to opt out.

This all sounds like a terrific idea, and I’m all for it. A great deal of time, effort and money will be spent implementing it. But as everyone learned on Sept. 11, 2001 and Nov. 9, 2011, there’s a huge difference between a RWT and national test, let alone the real deal.