Friday, March 4, 2011

Could you get away and get Help?

If a serious disaster requiring an evacuation during the weekend occurred
Would the AM/FM and TV Station in your area be able to get
Your message out to the public

You might be surprised to know the answer could be no?

By: Nick Markowitz Jr.
Broadcast Engineer WAVL

If during the weekend a train carrying hazardous materials were to rollover and crash and start leaking a toxic cloud in your town and you needed to get the word out thru the media that the whole town needed to evacuate along with residents up and down the valley were the accident occurred.
Would you be able to notify all the Radio and TV stations in the area to broadcast an emergency evacuation message for you?
Do not count on it.
As Radio stations merge and budgets get cut on air personalities actually working at the station and broadcasting are becoming thinner every day.
The vast majority of stations particularly in the smaller markets are using automation systems to allow the stations to be operated with no personnel on site. Sure you hear a disk jockey talking on the air but he is not there often times entire days of programming can be pre-recorded and then played at the appropriate time. We do it at the little 5K AM station were I work as the On-call Engineer. If you listen to our station you would think some one is in the studio when in realty the afternoon disk jockey came in the morning and voice tracked (recorded) his entire afternoon show which leaves him time to go out selling advertising.
So no one is at the station.
The FCC - Federal Communications Commission requires that stations be manned from
8:00 am to 5:00 Pm Monday thru Friday, which means a station, can be run by automation
All weekend.
But some stations still sound like some one is live from the station. Just another Radio Magic Trick often times stations are run completely by remote control from another state NYC and Chicago often have DJ’s sitting in massive studios who handle announcing for several stations at once over high speed computer lines you call the 800 number to enter the contest but the DJ is actually miles away who answers your call.
Then you have FM stations that can be operated over what is known as translators.
Similar to the repeaters we use for 2 way radios in the Fire Service
Translators rebroadcast signals from radio stations so they can penetrate into other market areas.
So if you have an emergency and called the local broadcasters on the weekend will some one answer you it all depends.
So what about the severe weather reports you hear on weekends how do they get out over the air?
The majority of broadcasters are required to have what are known as EAS –Emergency Alert System receivers required by FEMA and at my station we monitor the local big AM station signal and an FM station and the NWS- National Weather Service. Any time one of the emergency transmissions alert signal is received we automatically rebroadcast them.
Our transmitters are set up to override the music were playing and broadcast the message.
So we can run automated and still get major emergency messages out.
But one big glitch to the whole system is getting the signal and being able to retransmit it.
Lets say that tanker that rolled over was during a storm and the power went out our little station like many other little stations have no back up generator.
When the massive black out hit the east coast this year only 60% of stations managed to stay on the air by back up generators or sending transmissions from back up tower sites.
The rest were off the air completely till the power came back on. And many that were able to stay on the air lost their high-speed phone lines, which means they did not receive national programs. Many more were operating at only half their normal power as well.
To help make sure messages get thru
The State Emergency agency PEMA starting this year will be providing all stations big and small
With Satellite based computer systems so stations can stay in constant 2 way contact with Harrisburg and eliminate the retransmission of emergency massages so they go out all at once and are always recieved. Because some times the atmosphere causes problems in receiving the EAS message at stations who retransmit it.
My station some times has problems not getting the EAS message because our 910AM
Signal is close to the 1020AM signal we monitor and our 910 signals over powers the 1020 signal. Satellites will hopefully eliminate all of the related problems with the EAS system. As well as Back up generators many stations are hoping to get funding for including the one I work for.
So knowing everything about why your emergency message may not get out
What can you do?
Contact your local broadcaster and find out how they broadcast emergency messages and if the station is manned all the time or not if they have a emergency number you can call to either get the message sent from the remote broadcast site if there programming originates out of state or if a Board Operator or Engineer can make an emergency trip to the station to give the message out.
This is one situation were assuming a resource is 100% available could come back and bite you. Preplanning is essential to make sure emergency’s are effectively handled.

Note: Since this article first appeared in Pa. Fireman's Magazine in 90's Pa. now has an up to date alerting system but problem of no one at station still exists. and even more stations every day are going automated or dark due to economy.

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