January 2, 2016

Radio? Old Fashioned, But Effective

Filed under: Probable Cause — Tags: — Bill @ 7:08 am

CD_radioCommercial broadcast radio may be old fashioned, but it is still an effective way to communicate timely, accurate information to many people in an emergency.

Widespread power outages lasting from hours to days were a  significant challenge resulting from the November 17, 2015, region-wide windstorm.   We doubt that Avista Utilities, Kootenai Electric Cooperative, Northern Lights Electric Cooperative, and Inland Power & Light would voice much disagreement.  Neither would their customers.

The event, Windstorm 2015, was a civil emergency which required multijurisdictional, interagency response.

At the Coeur d’Alene City Council meeting on December 15, Coeur d’Alene Police Chief Lee White clearly identified a critical challenge faced by emergency services:  In an emergency, the emergency services need to be able to communicate timely, accurate information to the people affected.  Coeur d’Alene Fire Chief Kenny Gabriel’s and Chief White’s comments can be viewed and heard here beginning at time mark 0:12:07.  Chief White’s comments about the identified need to communicate information better to the public begins at time mark 0:17:47.

Councilman Dan Gookin asked the two Chiefs if they had considered using local commercial radio broadcasting stations to deliver timely, accurate, and regular information to all of Kootenai County.  The Chiefs indicated they had not but they would certainly be willing to explore it.

OpenCdA appreciates both Councilman Gookin’s question and the Chiefs’ response.  OpenCdA thinks that to communicate timely, verified information in an emergency affecting many people in a larger geographical area, commercial broadcast radio is more than just viable — it is superior.  

This newspaper article recounting the value of commercial radio in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy suggests we’re not alone in that observation.

Clear channel AM radio stations such as 77 WABC Radio and WOR Radio 710 AM would not deviate from their revenue-producing talk radio format to temporarily go all-news in an emergency unless there was a substantial audience wanting timely, accurate, relevant emergency news delivered calmly and authoritatively.

In his part of the presentation at the Coeur d’Alene City Council meeting on December 15, Police Chief White said, “We found out very quickly that people without power can’t watch TV, so they don’t have a good idea of what’s going on out there.  So a lot of folks turned to social media.   Our social media page had tons of hits and from what I’ve heard, that was at least one way people were getting information out.”

Chief White’s statement was somewhat different from that of  WCBS NewsRadio 880  news director Tim Scheid:  “Twitter. This was the moment Twitter really came of age as a news resource. It was like a police scanner. Thousands of listeners told us where things were happening so we could check them out.”

The difference between what Chief White said and what WCBS news director Scheid said is subtle but important.  Chief White seemed to say that the Police Department’s social media sites were simply allowing people to post raw  information without any verification, collation, and updating by the emergency services.  The information on the Police Department’s website might have been complete or incomplete, right or wrong, timely or untimely.

In contrast, news director Scheid said that WCBS used Twitter information as leads to be checked out before being disseminated to the public.   Insofar as possible it was verified by reporters before it was aired by WCBS.

OpenCdA agrees that social media such as Twitter can be a source of useful information, but it’s nothing more than a tip, a lead, at that point.  If the information can be verified by the emergency services, then and only then should it be deemed sufficiently reliable to be disseminated under the imprimatur of the emergency services.  Spreading unverified, unreliable, and frequently inaccurate and conflicting social media information is dangerous.  In some instances the social media information may be so inaccurate that it needs to be authoritatively refuted publicly.  Our view is that social media should be used as sources of leads by the emergency services.

WCBS NewsRadio 880  news director Tim Scheid also said, “If everything else is gone, people still have a radio.”   What a clear statement backed up by technical evidence.

To deliver useful, reliable, and timely information in an emergency, commercial broadcast radio needs four things:

  • Pre-incident administrative and technical coordination and regular testing
  • Verified content
  • A reliable signal delivered to the desired coverage area
  • An AM or AM/FM radio receiver to receive the signal and deliver the content

While individual agencies could address these matters as part of their own ongoing public information program, they must also be tended to by the Kootenai County Office of Emergency Management for incidents and events requiring the activation of the Emergency Operations Center.   We suspect that a radio station’s management and engineering staff would be more responsive to a coordinated, unified effort rather than separate approaches from multiple agencies.

The content must be timely, accurate, and succinctly stated.   The objective is not to entertain but to inform,  to deliver timely, accurate, essential information to help listeners cope better with the emergency.

For radio to be reliable from the citizen’s perspective, the signal must be strong enough to be reliably received throughout the desired coverage area (e.g., Kootenai County) any time, day or night.  “Strong enough” has a technical definition that must be met and maintained by the broadcaster under the station’s license from the Federal Communications Commission.  The coverage area is measured from the transmitting antenna site which may be miles away from the station’s studios.

For example, the studio for KVNI-AM is at Fifth Street and Sherman Avenue in downtown Coeur d’Alene, but its transmitter and antenna site is across the lake about four miles away off Highway 97 overlooking Moscow Bay.  Here are four simplified coverage area maps for three radio stations serving Kootenai County.  You can mouseclick on the maps to enlarge them.

KVNI Daytime Coverage KVNI Nighttime Coverage

KCDA Coverage Area KYMS Coverage Area (const. perm.)


Finally, citizens need a radio receiver to receive and process the signal.  Most people have at least one AM or AM/FM receiver in their homes.  It may be a clock radio by their bedside or a battery operated portable radio.   For emergency use, the battery operated portable radio with replaceable batteries (alkaline or lithium AA, AAA, C, D, or 9-volt) is the better choice since AC power may be lost.   Alkaline and lithium batteries have a long shelf life as well as longer operating life.  Alkaline batteries in the sizes listed can be purchased in almost every drug and hardware store as well as most major supermarkets and department stores such as Wal-Mart, K-Mart, CostCo, etc.

If you’re in the car or pickup when the emergency strikes, you very likely already have an AM/FM radio in the vehicle.  Once the radio is turned on and tuned in to the designated station, the driver can focus on driving safely while still aurally receiving information.  No attention-diverting thumb-diddling of a touch-screen or keyboard required!

But what about other comunications devices?  Why not rely on television or the internet rather than 106 year 0ld broadcast radio?

Commercial broadcast AM/FM radio is user-friendly, simple, and reliable.  People of all ages and stages of technical skill already know how to use it.  The receiving equipment is readily and inexpensively available.  Thanks to semiconductor technology, the equipment can operate for many hours to many days on readily available batteries which have a long shelf-life when not in use.  These are the reasons that organizations urging emergency preparedness (e.g., FEMA, American Red Cross, etc.) emphasize that family and business preparedness kits include a battery operated radio and extra batteries.

Television can and does provide useful information for its core coverage area, but the timeliness and quantity of locally relevant information tends to diminish as one gets further away from the core.  Kootenai County does not have a local television station whose primary news focus is producing Kootenai County news.   Kootenai County’s emergency event coverage is going to be limited to whatever Spokane television stations’ news directors and assignment editors deem important enough to be interesting primarily though not necessarily exclusively to a Spokane audience.

And what happens to your TV if the power goes out?  Do you have a battery-powered portable TV in your home?  In your car, pickup, or boat?  Can you replace the batteries or must they be recharged?  If you receive your home television signal via a cable system rather than terrestrial transmission, will your cable system still be operating?  For many in Spokane, their cable was out for days after the November 17 windstorm.  In most instances, TV works only when the electrical service is uninterrupted.

OpenCdA does not reject the potential value of smartphones during an emergency.  Even FEMA acknowledges they can be useful as long as the user understands their limitations.  Some of those limitations are discussed in this FEMA release.   In our view, the biggest limitations of smartphones is that not everyone has them and uses them, and they generally do not have readily-obtainable replaceable batteries.   And as we noted above, relying on unverified information posted on social media can be dangerous.

There are latent technologies being explored to reduce power consumption in your smartphone while still allowing you to use your device as an FM radio.

You still need internet access via wired or wireless network to get the streaming audio or the FM radio station. That is the key.  If the data networks’ capacities are exceeded by people trying to get access, that smartphone may not be so smart any longer.  As FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate says in this YouTube video, it becomes a brick.

If your smartphone is possibly your only communication device, don’t you want to save the battery for that call or SMS text message to 9-1-1?  Or for calling or SMS texting distant relatives to tell them you and your family are safe?

If the battery on your smartphone,  tablet or notebook computer dies, can you replace it or does your device stay dead until you can get to a source of power to recharge the battery?  Even if you have a charger or power adapter in your car or pickup or boat, are you still in range of a working wireless network that will allow you to access social media on the internet?  Is it really safe to be driving and trying to thumb-diddle your touchscreen or keyboard device anyway?

WCBS news director Tim Scheid said that his all-news station saw Twitter as a valuable news resource.  What he did not report, however, was how many people at WCBS had to be assigned to monitor Twitter feeds.  He did not report how many times the leads were followed and found to be baseless because the information was inaccurate or untimely or even intentionally false.

OpenCdA thinks that the Kootenai County Office of Emergency Management and the individual participants in the Emergency Operations Center need to consider how much reliance they want to place on the quality of information coming in on social media when deciding what information is timely, accurate, and complete enough to disseminate to the public.

More importantly, we think the KCOEM and the EOC should want to use an information dissemination medium that is already available, reliable, easy to use, and accessible without diverting attention from other important tasks such as driving in heavy traffic on roads and streets during emergencies.  Social media can be a supplement, but we question the wisdom of its being the exclusive or even primary method to disseminate emergency information.

Not to get too deep in the legal weeds here, but government agencies using social media to disseminate information should consult with their legal counsel to ensure the agencies follow whatever record retention requirements may be associated with using social media to conduct government business.

We urge the KCOEM and its various partners to put together a plan to approach local radio stations to discuss ways of airing emergency information.   It is not enough to simply send out occasional press releases and hope the news media use them.  The KCOEM needs to listen carefully to what Chiefs White and Gabriel said.   The KCOEM needs to do a much better job of educating the public through pre-incident public awareness programs.  It also needs to dramatically improve its ability to acquire, verify, and disseminate timely, accurate, complete information during an emergency.

We suspect that using commercial broadcast radio to reach out to the public with timely, accurate, complete information will have some additional benefits for the emergency community.  We suspect unnecessary calls to 9-1-1 will be reduced.  We also suspect demand on data networks will be reduced.  Knowing where to go for that information, then going there and hearing it, has a calming and reassuring effect.  Not a bad outcome during an emergency.

Our region was very fortunate that none of our recent weather-related events have resulted in mass casualties or mass fatalities like the ones last weekend in the midwest.   These recent events have hopefully served to stimulate the KCOEM and others to encourage we, the public, to be as ready as we can for serious emergencies.  We hope that the KCOEM and its participating partners will be prepared to use a time-tested and efficient medium of mass communication — commercial broadcast radio — to deliver timely, consistent, accurate information next time an emergency strikes our region.

[Note:  The CONELRAD graphic at the beginning of this post dates back to the 1950’s when CONELRAD was created to warn citizens of an imminent attack by the Soviet Union.  CONELRAD was not intended to warn of weather and other civil emergencies.  CONELRAD was subsequently replaced by the Emergency Broadcast System which later became the Emergency Notification System.  Today it is called the Emergency Alert System.]


  1. When the untreated fertilizer hits the well-known oscillating blades, people need to understand that they need to do more than just duck.
    In this day and age I still know people that do not have a smart phone, but they do have a battery operated radio which of course will not work if they haven’t check the batteries since they installed them five years ago.
    From the time, we all believed that crawling under our school desk would save us from a nuclear blast. AM radio has been and is still the prime source of emergency warning. Now a lot of us have smart phones that can access the internet, some of us have generators that can keep our TV’s working providing we are not on cable but first and foremost is the lowly radio (use your car radio).
    A liaison from the ECC at the local radio station can and should filter the emergency information.
    A liaison at the library where channel 19 is setup for those that have Cable and a phone center that will readily get swamped should also be set up.
    Now the hard part, educating the public on where to tune in too, call or go for information.
    This last part is the most important part, it is quite easy and in fact most likely for your emergency services to be completely swamped during a disaster and have to triage calls, which simply means save the savable first. The point I am getting to is self-reliance or knowing your safety is your responsibility.
    A general rule is be prepared to survive on your own for at least 72 hours, that means water ( don’t forget what is needed to rehydrate survival foods and for your pets) medicines, food, toilet facilities (your toilets might not flush) and a way to heat everything without killing yourself and your family with CO poisoning.
    Remember it’s your family, it’s your responsibility.
    By the way our Emergence Services just might like to invite the local Ham Radio Club to their discussions, they have one of the best communication systems around.

    Comment by Mike Teague — January 3, 2016 @ 12:13 pm

  2. Mike,

    Excellent comments! Sounds like the voice of experience… Thank you!

    Unless it has disbanded, I believe the ham radio operators are already on board through the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES). See the diagram on page 17 and the information beginning on page 50 of this document.

    Thanks again for the great comment.

    Comment by Bill — January 3, 2016 @ 3:03 pm

  3. Thank you Bill, Iv’e been away too long I couldn’t remembers RACES to save my life.

    Comment by Mike Teague — January 3, 2016 @ 4:24 pm

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