The reason for a station to remain on (or return to) the air in an emergency is to provide its listeners with the information they need to find resources and escape injury. This is a heavy responsibility that must be approached with care and planning. In addition to the information itself it is sometimes a calm voice on the air that means the most.
Station staff in the field represent a first-line source of reliable information from trusted personnel. Primary contact with staff in the field will be by cell phone as long as the cell system is functional. Each staff member should be provided with a laminated card as described in Chapter 1 containing the contact numbers for primary emergency and disaster relief personnel. These numbers should also be programmed into the contact lists on each staff member's cell phone.
Effective use may also be made of SMS text messages as a replacement for voice calls for coordination and the transmission of information.
It is possible and legal to monitor the radio transmissions of emergency agencies. These transmissions can provide important information directly from the scene relating to a developing emergency situation. However, understanding these transmissions and extracting information from them requires experience. The extracted information must be used with care to avoid spreading false information or damaging relationships with the emergency agencies.
Install a scanning receiver in the news room, emergency operations desk or other location that will become a command post in the event of an emergency. A roof antenna will be required for good reception. Program this receiver with the channels used by the local emergency agencies. Listen to the receiver during normal times to become familiar with unit numbers, procedures, etc.
The radio channels used by your local agencies may be obtained from several sources. Friendly technicians at the county radio shop and local scanner enthusiasts can be helpful. Detailed information may also be found online. The excellent website www.radioreference.com has information for just about every agency for most places in the U.S.
Modern emergency radio systems are often highly sophisticated, requiring a scanning receiver of equal sophistication. If you're unsure of the type of systems your area uses, the radio shop of the agency itself may be able to help.
Important emergency information from national, state and local agencies is increasingly available via email, text messaging and online services such as Twitter. Station management and staff should sign up to receive relevant notifications directly. A simple online subscription form typically allows the subscriber to select the type and locations of emergencies they wish to be informed about and the method by which they wish to receive the information. Once that's done no further action is required. The selected information will be sent in near real time.
Additional information is also available on the websites of local and national organizations. Check the sites frequently for updates and more detailed information.
These sources of electronically-delivered information provide a conduit between the emergency response organizations and the station. The information flowing through these conduits is official and may be used by station management and staff to inform and expand the reports they make on the air to their listeners.
Not only is this information easy to find and use, it is free.
Examples of electronic information sources that have proven valuable include EmergencyEmail which permits the selection of information for a particular state and specific information within that state:
Ready.gov is a national, information-rich site that provides guidance on everything from local emergency agencies to how to assemble different types of emergency kits for family and business.
Local and regional fire and law enforcement agencies often provide the same or similar services. These messages tend to be more locally focused. Use the personal contacts you have established with your local first responders to find out if they provide these services or do an Internet search to find their Web sites.
The timely messages provided by these sites can be extremely valuable, especially when staff are working remotely. The information offered can also help guide a station and station listeners in the steps they need to take to prepare for emergencies.
Establish a policy for how information derived from the scanning receiver and online sources will be used on the air. Certain information, such as the death or injury of a particular person, should not be broadcast. Other information, such as flooding, fire or blocked roads may be used if the units on scene have confirmed that these events are in fact occurring. If in doubt contact the dispatch center for the agency involved for confirmation.
A general information policy, posted in the on-air studios, covering how all information coming into the station from various sources should be handled can provide an immediate reference in emergency situations. Here's an example from KWMR in West Marin, CA:
Your sources of information are identified, your information policy is in place... now it's time to communicate with your listeners. In an emergency situation, your listeners will want the facts, they will want reassurance that those facts are current, and they will want to feel connected with reliable sources. The Public Information Officer at the Kentucky Emergency Management Agency advises these best practices for how, and what, to communicate during an emergency:
During the catastrophic ice storms of January 2009, WKMS in Murray, KY put these bullets on their studio walls to remind on-air staff to keep a basic "drumbeat" of reliable information going throughout their programming. Based on the levels of emergency coverage that you have determined for your station (see chapter 1.2.5), deliver and repeat these updates as frequently as you think necessary.
Civilian two way radio networks can provide a valuable means to obtain information from observers on the scene. These networks may be composed of local citizens with amateur radio licenses, or the station itself may establish its own network (in which case operator licenses are not required). Each option has its own advantage. Ideally a station will have access to both.
Radio amateurs in many areas have established emergency networks, usually operating under a national organization called RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service), which in turn is often coordinated by the local law enforcement agency. Only personnel who have passed a test and received an amateur radio license may participate in RACES. Thus RACES installation at your station may not be activated until you have a licensed amateur radio operator on board. But the basic infrastructure, training, and individual equipment are provided by RACES members at no cost to your station.
If station personnel wish to obtain their own amateur radio licenses, the study materials and the examinations are provided at a nominal cost by local Volunteer Examiners, usually part of a local amateur radio club. Some clubs offer "ham cram" classes over a weekend with the examination taken at the end of the class. Such classes provide the minimum grade of amateur license needed to participate in RACES and may be sufficient for those without a wider interest in amateur radio.
Information about RACES organization in your area may be found through a local amateur radio club or via the American Radio Relay League (www.arrl.org), the national organization for amateur radio.
Large stations may already have a two-way radio system installed. Smaller stations should consider establishing such a system which can often be funded through local and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grants. Such a system is useful in normal times for the coordination of remotes, news gathering and other purposes. In emergency or disaster situations, it can provide a vital link for station personnel when the cell phone infrastructure is overloaded or inoperative. With a station-owned system there is no need to wait for someone on staff to become a licensed operator. Staff may "grab and go", meaning they can pick up their radio and immediately begin communicating.
As with information obtained via the scanning receiver, information provided via a two-way radio system must be properly vetted before being broadcast. If a station-owned system is used, this process will be easier since known and presumably trusted station staff will be providing the information.
Listeners can be a valuable source of front-line information. But extra care must be taken to prevent inaccurate information from being broadcast. Large stations will have a delay on their live phone calls. Smaller stations may have to use their best judgment before putting a caller on the air.
A station may wish to implement a policy (especially in the early stages of an emergency or disaster) that only calls from emergency services personnel will be broadcast. Calls from listeners can be taken off the air and compiled and edited for broadcast.
A special hotline phone, red with no dial and a strobe light ringer, may be installed in the on-air control room. The distribution of the number associated with this phone should be strictly limited to emergency personnel and station staff. Its use should be restricted to callers with important emergency information. Programmers should be instructed to answer this phone "no matter what".
Collaboration with other radio and television stations, and with local newspapers, may be a feasible way to make the best use of combined resources to gather and deliver accurate information in an emergency. Make contact with other radio and TV stations (commercial and non-commercial), and newspapers before the emergency happens. Then, when the need arises, a structure of cooperation will already be in place.
Meet with the management and engineering staff of other stations in your area to determine what resources can be shared in an emergency. Items of most usefulness include:
Some arrangements with other stations will require written agreements. Rebroadcasting another station's programming may be vital in an emergency. However FCC rules require that a written agreement to do this must be in place. Such agreements may be simple, but they should be established in advance so they can be implemented immediately when needed.
Much in the same way that you maintain and update a contact list of station personnel consider creating a list of names and contact information for your opposite numbers at the media outlets you may be working with in an emergency. Schedule quarterly reviews for currency.