While some debate endlessly which content best serves the public interest, there is universal agreement that the content broadcasters air during emergencies is vital to their communities. Whether it comes in the form of 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 Matthew 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.
Curiously, the growth of alternative information sources has only served to emphasize that in a true emergency, there is no substitute for local broadcasts. 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.
That is why nearly a dozen states have laws on the books granting broadcast personnel First Responder/First Informer status. These laws allow broadcasters access to crisis areas, both for reporting on a disaster and maintaining station operations throughout. This includes granting priority to broadcasters for scarce fuel supplies (and emergency access for vehicles transporting fuel to stations). That fuel keeps stations’ emergency generators, and the transmitters they power, running during emergencies.
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 to be able to reach the station’s facilities. That resilience in extreme conditions is, however, only part of the reason local broadcast stations are critical in emergencies. Also important is the fact that broadcast receivers are ubiquitous and easy to power. Some estimates place the number of radios in the U.S. at nearly 600,000,000, almost double the population of the U.S. Many of those radios are powered by replaceable batteries. As a result, they don’t need access to the power grid for recharging like smartphones do. A box full of batteries will bring radio service for the duration of most any emergency.
Speaking of smartphones, in part because of the importance of accessing local broadcast signals during emergencies, the big 4 wireless providers have now activated the FM chip in at least some of their smartphones. While there are a lot of radios out there, people aren’t generally walking around with a transistor radio in their hand at all times. Being able to access emergency broadcast information via the smartphone in your pocket ensures that even when the cell phone network has ceased to function, you still have immediate access to important local information. In fact, even where the cell phone system is still operating and not overwhelmed by traffic, there are two good reasons for utilizing a phone’s FM receiving capability. First, it consumes a fraction of the battery power that streaming data does, ensuring the longest battery life possible—an important factor if you don’t know where your next charge is coming from. Second, and taking a broader perspective, utilizing the FM capability is helpful to the community at large, as the more individuals that are obtaining information by radio, the less likely the wireless network will become overwhelmed, ensuring it is available for coordination of relief efforts and other vital functions.
Because televisions have far greater power needs than radios, the typical pattern in a disaster is for people to rely on local TV to track and prepare for an impending disaster, and then switch to radio when the power goes out. However, with people scurrying about in their cars to buy storm supplies, the portability of radio (and its universal availability in cars), makes it a big part of storm preparations too. Conversely, those lucky enough to have power after a storm (whether by generator or good fortune) can follow the storm recovery on their TVs. The promise of ATSC 3.0 to make broadcast television signals more accessible to mobile devices can only increase that availability in adverse conditions.
And that’s where life gets even more complicated for television broadcasters. It’s tough enough to continue operations during a hurricane, with employees sleeping in the studio while wondering if their house is still standing. TV stations are also required to ensure that all of their viewers, regardless of hearing or vision challenges, are able to receive the 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”) to TV stations that effectively said “run for shelter” but didn’t air a crawl or other graphic at that time conveying the same information.
Last year, the FCC created additional obligations for relaying emergency information to all segments of the public. The “Audible Crawl Rule”, as it has come to be known, requires TV stations to aurally present on a secondary audio stream (“SAS”) any emergency information that is provided visually in non-newscast programming. The station must insert an aural tone (both on the main video stream and the SAS) before transmitting emergency information on the SAS to differentiate that information from normal audio. This alerts the viewer to turn on the SAS and focus on the emergency content. Think that sounds complicated? It is, which is why stations have been working on automating the process as much as possible.
Preventing a person’s hearing or vision impairment from becoming the cause of their death or injury is certainly a worthy goal, but it isn’t hard to understand the frustration of a station employee that hasn’t slept in 24 hours trying to get emergency information out to viewers as quickly as possible, but needing to pause to ensure the appropriate graphics and SAS information is prepared and aired in order to avoid an FCC fine. To help stations simplify that process when preparing for last year’s hurricane season, we drafted a detailed summary of the FCC’s emergency information accessibility rules titled Keep Calm and Broadcast On: A Guide for Television Stations on Airing Captions and Audible Crawls in an Emergency. Stations whose communities will be affected by Hurricane Matthew 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 these rules add to a station’s challenges during an already challenging time, the FCC is doing its part as well. Earlier today, the FCC released a Public Notice reminding broadcasters, among others, that:
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will be available to address emergency communications needs twenty-four hours a day throughout the weekend, especially relating to the effects that Hurricane Matthew may have on the Southeastern United States.
The FCC reminds emergency communications providers, including broadcasters, cable service providers, wireless and wireline service providers, satellite service providers, emergency response managers and first responders, and others needing assistance to initiate, resume, or maintain communications operations during the weekend, to contact the FCC Operations Center for assistance at 202-418-1122 or by e-mail at FCCOPCenter@fcc.gov.
Here’s hoping that the FCC’s phone doesn’t ring much in the coming days.