Whether tracking a developing storm so the public can prepare, or disseminating evacuation orders and alerts, broadcasters continue to serve as the bedrock of the nation’s warning system in emergencies. As Hurricane Florence approaches the East Coast, TV and radio stations are hurrying to make sure they are in position to warn and inform their audiences of new developments.
Continuing operations during a hurricane is tough enough with employees sleeping in the studio while wondering if their house is still standing, but TV stations are also required by the FCC to ensure that all viewers, regardless of hearing or vision challenges, are able to receive emergency information being relayed. As a result, emergency information presented on-air aurally must also be made available visually, and emergency information presented visually must also be made available aurally. In past disasters, the FCC has proposed fines of up to $24,000 ($8,000 per “incident”) for TV stations that effectively said “run for shelter” but didn’t air a crawl or other graphic at that time conveying the same information.
To help television stations in this week’s storm path meet their obligations, Pillsbury today published an updated edition of Keep Calm and Broadcast On: A Guide for Television Stations on Airing Captions and Audible Crawls in an Emergency. Stations whose communities are near the path of Hurricane Florence should review it, both as a refresher on what they will need to do in the next few days, and on how best to do it.
While broadcasters are working to help their communities prepare for the storm, the FCC is also trying to do its part to help broadcasters. Earlier today, the FCC released a Public Notice providing emergency contact info for various divisions of the FCC relevant to an emergency, as well as procedures for making emergency requests for Special Temporary Authority to operate at variance from normal license parameters where needed due to equipment damage, etc. The Public Notice also states that licensees requiring emergency assistance or STAs outside of business hours can “call the FCC’s Operations Center, which is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at (202) 418-1122 or by e-mail at FCCOPCenter@fcc.gov.”
State governments are doing their part as well—nearly a dozen states have adopted laws granting broadcast personnel First Responder/First Informer status. During earlier hurricanes in Florida, dedicated broadcasters stayed at their stations rather than protect their homes, only to find their transmissions halted when the station generator ran out of fuel and government officials prevented fuel trucks from entering the disaster area to resupply stations. First Responder/First Informer laws allow broadcasters access to crisis areas, both for reporting on a disaster and maintaining station operations. This includes granting priority to broadcasters for scarce fuel supplies (and emergency access for vehicles transporting fuel to stations) to keep their stations’ emergency generators—and the transmitters they power—running during emergencies.
Recognizing the limitations of a state-by-state approach, in March of this year, Congress granted broadcasters First Informer status in federal disaster areas throughout the nation. Hurricane Florence will serve as one of the first tests of broadcasters’ new federal First Informer status.
While the last decade has brought progress in making communications infrastructure more resilient in emergencies, cable and Internet service is often disrupted in disasters, and cell phone networks, where they don’t fail outright, become overwhelmed by increased usage during a disaster. Unlike communications infrastructure that requires wired connections over a broad area, or numerous short-range towers and repeaters, broadcast stations just need an upright tower or tall building for their antenna, fuel for their generator, and access for their employees. That resilience in extreme conditions—and the ubiquity of radios and TVs—is critical in emergencies.
It’s time for broadcasters to once again weather the storm, and to help their communities survive it.