TACOMA, Wash.—More and more broadcasters are playing a larger role when it comes to responding to emergencies now that Washington state has signed a new first informer broadcast bill.
The decision makes Washington the 11th state in the country to pass such legislation. The bill was a culmination of three years of efforts by broadcasters, the Washington State Association of Broadcasters (WSAB) and the state’s Emergency Management Division to ensure broadcasters can gain access to transmitter and studio facilities during time of a declared emergency.
The bill was unanimously passed through both chambers of the Washington state legislature before being signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in late April.
To participate in the program, broadcast technicians must be registered as a First Informer Broadcaster as part of the Washington Business Re-Entry System. They will then have authorization to access to their studio and transmitter facilities to restore broadcast operations and disseminate safety and recovery information to listeners and viewers.
Broadcasters are still required to follow the direction of incident commanders as it relates to safety issues in declared emergency zones. Key language in the bill prohibits authorities from confiscating resources — fuel, food, water and other essential materials — brought to the site by a first informer broadcaster, WSAB said.
“This legislation is really impactful for broadcasters,” said Janene Drafs, chairwoman of the board of WSAB. “Access to our transmitter sites and studio facilities during time of emergency allows us to broadcast important safety and recovery information to the communities we serve across the state of Washington.”
A mini-documentary that aired during the National Association of Broadcasters’ State Leadership Conference in February details the role that local radio and television broadcasters serve as first informers during times of emergency. This film focuses on broadcasters’ response to Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael, which hit the southeastern U.S. in the fall of 2018, causing evacuations and billions of dollars in property damage. It showcases footage of the storm as well as “examples of broadcasters’ valiant efforts to provide life-saving emergency information and community assistance,” wrote NAB Senior Vice President of Communications Ann Marie Cumming in a blog post about the video.
Other states with first informer legislation include Missouri, which voted in 2016 to give broadcasters priority in restoring, repairing or resupplying facilities following a disaster in 2016. That bill, known as SB 732, established a program for training and certifying broadcast engineers and technical personnel to allow them to act as first informer broadcasters if the need arises. The Washington legislation is similar to the Oregon State First Informer Bill that was passed in 2015.
Changes to the “Robert T. Stafford Relief and Emergency Assistance Act” in 2018, part of a federal appropriations bill, furthered the issue. The bill included language who have access to disaster areas during federally declared emergencies. Mobile telephone service, internet access service, radio or television broadcasting, cable service or direct broadcast satellite service are now considered essential service providers, according to the document, allowing them to gain access to vital infrastructure, including transmitter sites, when disaster hits.