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October 22, 2016

Turn Your Radio On?

Filed under: Probable Cause — Tags: — Bill @ 4:27 pm

2015WindstormHead1Remember Windstorm 2015?  It was just a little less than a year ago.

One of the major concerns expressed by officials and citizens in Windstorm 2015’s aftermath was the complete inadequacy of timely, consistent, verified information being put out by the Kootenai County Office of Emergency Management before, during, and even after the event.

If this recent blurb on the City of Coeur d’Alene’s website is any indication, little has changed for the better.  Apparently the City has decided that “social media” will be the method of choice for reaching out to the public.

So, what’s wrong with “social media?”

  • They are internet dependent.  Fortunately the internet is absolutely reliable.  Nothing ever could happen to it, right?  Except this and this.
  • It requires users to have expensive internet devices, service, and access.  What about people who do not have smart phones or other internet-capable portable devices?  And what about people who have the devices but they use rechargeable but not replaceable batteries? What do they do when the electricity goes out for days and their whizbang communications device goes dead?  A discharged battery that cannot be replaced or recharged is useless for emergency telephone communications as well as for receiving timely, verified information from officials on “social media.”
  • Which “social medium” will be the official source of official information?  We don’t know, because neither the City nor the County have told us.  Will it be FaceRash, Snappity-Doo-Dah, Twitterpation?
  • If the “social media” allow public input, each medium must be monitored continuously by EOC personnel.  People will use these media to report information that would more appropriately be called in to a trained call-taker at 9-1-1.

Our preceding Windstorm 2015 posts advocated the County and City working with one or more terrestrial commercial broadcast AM and FM radio stations to allow the Kootenai County Emergency Operations Center to provide an audio feed to the station(s).

The type of feed we envisioned would provide short duration, as-warranted or several times per hour reports at regular invervals.  They would be similar to traffic reports currently broadcast.  Here’s an audio example recorded January 4, 2016.  It was aired by KXLY radio.  The on-air announcer, Bob Lutz, works for Metro Traffic which provides traffic report audio feeds to several stations.

Why use old-fashioned radio?

  • It is not internet dependent.
  • Some radio stations in our area include nearly all of Kootenai County in their primary coverage area.
  • Radio stations’ studios and transmitter sites are designed to operate during emergencies, even long-term power outages.  They have been used for decades to deliver timely, essential information to many people.  Radio is reliable, and it has proven itself.
  • A battery-powered portable AM/FM radio receiver costs less than $25.  The commonly used, inexpensive alkaline batteries have a shelf-life of ten years, so spares can easily be stored with other emergency supplies.
  • Most cars, pickups, trucks, and motor homes come with AM/FM radios.  Even visitors in the area and people passing through would have access to emergency information.  No keyboard operations required while driving in adverse conditions.
  • In many emergencies (think Firestorm, Mt. St. Helens eruption, Ice Storm) radio stations already interrupt regular programming to provide information from the National Weather Service and other emergency entities.  They already have a plan and could work with the Kootenai County OEM to plan and prepare in advance.
  • The OEM/EOC has absolute control over the timing and completeness of the information being disseminated through its audio feed to its radio partners.  It can assure that only timely, accurate information is sent on its feed.
  • The announcer in the EOC needs only two skills:  Be able to read copy clearly and be able to tell time.  Others in the EOC need to be able to write the clear, succinct, accurate copy for the on-air announcer to read.

What would the OEM/EOC have to do?

  • Commit to using terrestrial commercial AM and FM stations (if the stations are willing) as the primary method of delivering emergency information to the public.
  • Identify radio stations with adequate area coverage around the clock.   Some radio stations, mainly AM stations,  reduce power or change their antenna pattern at night to reduce interference with other stations.  Contact the station management to dicsuss the idea.
  • Assuming suitable stations agree to participate, work with their personnel to establish the technical links from the EOC to the stations.  It’s not as complicated as it might seem.  It will cost some money, though.
  • Train OEM/EOC persons to gather the information from others in the EOC, then write and read the copy.

In an emergency, getting timely, verified accurate, complete information out to the public is essential.  Using commercial AM and FM terrestrial radio achieves that.  If people know where to tune in an emergency, and if they tune there and hear what they need to hear, they are less likely to tie up emergency phone numbers such as 9-1-1 asking for information.  They are also less likely to use “social media” to report emergency information that should be called in to 9-1-1 where trained call-takers can process it more quickly and accurately and route it to appropriate responders.

2 Comments

  1. I don’t know whether it’s the elected officials or the staff or whomever, but they seem to have a hard-on for social media and alternative methods of communications. I tried really hard to convince the EOC and our first responders to go with AM radio, but I faced fierce opposition. I could poke so many holes in their arguments for reverse 911, and Nixel, and other toys I could never take seriously. Yet the only hole they could poke in my radio argument was that it was difficult to work with the local broadcasters. Your article has prompted me to further explore the issue.

    Comment by Dan Gookin — October 22, 2016 @ 6:16 pm

  2. Dan,

    Thanks for trying. In fact, FM is making a resurgence since the Federal Cookie Cutters loosened up on its requirements for translators and low-power FM. FM with its wide audio bandwidth versus lower RF interference problems and lower power translators is offering wider coverage areas at lower power and therefore lower cost. There is at least one FM station, KYMS, that covers nearly all Kootenai County continuously. KYMS studio is in Rathdrum, but its transmitter/antenna site is near Long Mountain about 8 miles or so north of Athol.

    Dealing with the station managers might be easier if whoever was representing the County or City understood the station’s concerns and was able to demonstrate how cooperation might benefit the station. The County can’t show up and expect a station manager to sacrifice air time if there’s little to show increased revenue or other identifiable benefit for the station.

    As a simple example, assume the County will be talking with the station manager, program director, and chief engineer for a station. What the County has to “sell” is the County’s promotion of the station in all its Emergency Operations brochures and material. The County simply says, repeatedly, that in the event of an emergency requiring the activation of the EOC, listeners should tune their radios to station (callsign) for the most current and accurate information which originates at the EOC. Logically, throughout the emergency, a certain number of interested listeners are going to leave their radidios tuned to that station. They will hear the station’s advertising as well as its programming. The key, of course, is that the County has to deliver timely, accurate information at exactly the scheduled time and at other times as well. The additional advantage for the station is that it gets the most up-to-the-minute, accurate, verified information first and airs it first. It also gets good story leads (if the station provides local news coverage). If the County delivers consistently good quality info and if the station sees some benefit, the management should be more willing to talk. But the County can’t just show up with a mouth full of “howdy” and a handful of “gimmee.” It has to deliver something of value to the station.

    Developing the beneficial association with the broadcasters is the OEM PIO’s job. It’s more than just sending out an occasional email or putting up a post on the website. It means working with the broadcasters when there is no looming emergency to give them information they can use to gain listener and advertiser interest. That translates into revenue for the station. A good PIO is feeding his network of news contacts good information throughout the year, not just when he wants something. While a lot of the information he feeds may go unused, it will make it on the air or in print when the medium needs a feature story for filler.

    Comment by Bill — October 22, 2016 @ 7:36 pm

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