When disaster strikes

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When disaster strikes

Oct 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Doug Irwin

Before, during and after a disaster

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New Orleans radio station WKBU-FM''s transmitter site was flooded during Hurricane Katrina.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina--the devastating effects of the winds and storm surge on countless towns and people along the Gulf Coast, and the flooding that occurred throughout New Orleans and environs--are still being felt even as I prepared this article at the end of September.

As the water is pumped out of New Orleans, and as the full extent of the destruction becomes evident along the Gulf Coast, it is only natural and prudent that those of us who were not directly affected think about what our "Hurricane Katrina" is; the disaster scenario that no one really wants to contemplate, let alone plan for. That is what this article is about: emergency planning from the most basic emergency to the most devastating of circumstances. There is no time like the present to consider it.

In preparing this article I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Marty Hadfield, the vice president of engineering for Entercom Communications, which is the licensee of WWL radio in New Orleans, and Mike Hagans, most recently the vice president of engineering for the Premiere Radio Networks and now fulfilling a crucial engineering role on behalf of Clear Channel in New Orleans. They spoke about the situation there and how they and fellow company personnel are coping with the disaster.

The most basic emergency circumstance to plan for is that of a power outage.

While outfitting a generator set with the largest fuel tank as is practical may seem like the only thing to do, in the event of a major emergency it is impossible to know how long the power could be out. Therefore, plan on a means for the station to obtain more fuel. Don't wait till the tank is almost empty before considering it.

"WWL has a 12,000 gallon tank," said Hadfield. "That sounds like a lot, but [Entercom station] KIRO in Seattle has 16,000 gallons. You literally cannot have too much fuel. If you don't use it you can pump it out to help someone else."

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The tower site of WYLD-AM.

Proximity of fuel sources should be an area of concern. "Clear Channel has fuel stockpiled, and trucks and people that are capable of driving them," said Hagans. Another issue to consider--and this goes way beyond planning for a "run-of-the-mill" emergency--is the fact that generator sets need substantial amounts of maintenance to run over long periods, and you may or may not be able to carry out the most basic service during an extended power outage, like those that the Gulf Coast have experienced. It is possible that finding qualified generator technicians could be exceedingly difficult in this event.

Hagans said that Clear Channel is prepared for this contingency. "We have trailer-mounted generator sets with skid tanks ready to go. With a company the size of Clear Channel, you've got that kind of stuff, and it's stored in a protected area, and they can get to it when a storm like this hits."

The situation for WWL was complicated. "WWL's generator was serviced and the fuel topped off about three weeks ahead of the storm, but the station had to run at half-power because the generator balked with the transmitter at full-power. I contacted the Army Corps of Engineers 249 Brigade--the power engineers--to see if we could get a replacement generator in there. Something higher like a 400kW would have been perfect, and they came through with a 380kW unit; fixed it up, and they're delivering it to the site tomorrow [which was on Sept. 9]. Site access is a problem so they are going to bring it in with a Chinook helicopter."

Fortunately, commercial power was restored to the WWL transmitter site before the generator arrived.

Staying connected

Communications--or the lack thereof--is another aspect of disaster recovery that can bring the entire recovery process to a halt. Shortly after the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, there were so many attempts to use the telephone system, as people attempted to contact their loved ones, that it was virtually impossible to get a dial tone. Cellular phone systems were knocked out in many cases because of widespread power outages. This result was duplicated, in effect, in New Orleans.

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This generator was crunched by a storage van belonging to the CUU.

"Emergency workers were using cell phones and if you didn't have a priority card issued by NCS then you weren't going to be able to use the system," said Hagans.

Hadfield agreed. "The worst part is when you have lots of people concentrated in one spot; the cellular system gets overloaded. All the downtown sites were constantly overloaded. After about three days though, people's batteries began dying, and so the cell sites came back in to a useable condition."

Fortunately, there are alternative means to communicate, some of which you can plan on using in the event of an emergency.

"One of the primary means we used in communications to the Jefferson Parish EOC was the old analog bag phones. Works almost every time. It became an integral part of our efforts in New Orleans. The other thing that we've seen work is the text-messaging system."

Hagans agrees. "You couldn't get a voice channel but you could get a data channel."

"With the phone lines out, there was no way to communicate with engineers in the field from the command post--in this case Baton Rouge, LA--so having satellite phones was a huge benefit," said Hagans. "You have to be willing to have them in place ahead of time and to be willing to pay the price for using them. Otherwise, you just won't have communications for the most critical days right after the event."

My own experience after the 1989 quake was that communications and power availability came back to normal within a few days. But what happens when the course of the disaster is far more extensive? What happens if a tower falls, a transmitter building is completely flooded, or the studio building itself becomes unusable? What kind of planning should be done in advance?

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Following the storm, many things were out of place. While some sites are intact, a cleanup effort is still required.

Geographic diversity may be the best (and perhaps most costly) means by which you can plan to stay on the air in the event of a tower collapse. At the very least (in the case of FM and TV antenna sites) having the main and a backup antenna on separate towers is a reasonable plan. Entercom Seattle's main FM facilities are located on Tiger Mountain, which is east of Seattle and famous for its tough winter weather. By locating its backup FM facilities on Cougar Mountain (about half the elevation of Tiger and with much better winter-time access) the stations have hedged against all the "normal" site failures--transmitter failure, antenna failure, power loss and generator failure--and one that is site-specific: impassable winter weather.

All broadcast engineers have heard tower disaster stories, from the World Trade Center to the destruction of the KFI tower last winter-caused by an airplane. Thorough disaster planning kept WKTU on the air after the destruction of the World Trade Center towers; they had recently completed an entirely separate transmitter site at the Conde Naste Building. KFI was only off the air briefly because it had a back-up tower at the same site.

KNBR in San Francisco had an airplane strike a guy-wire on its primary tower several years ago, and although the tower did not fall, the station had a separate backup ready to go.

I asked Hadfield about any specific strategic plans that were in place for WWL. "We have a licensed backup for WWL at the transmitter site," he said. "A horizontal wire is attached directly to a backup transmitter. Knowing it was available was comforting. WWL and WSMB also share the same type of [Nautel] transmitter, so we could pull the exciter deck out of the WWL transmitter and take it to WSMB, and then retune that transmitter to WWL's frequency. Also, one of the WSMB towers is exactly 90 degrees at WWL's frequency, and so we could easily tune it up for non-directional operation."

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The transmitters for WRNO and WNOE-FM in New Orleans were flooded and left caked with mud and debris.

Emergency planning should of necessity include what to do in the event of the loss of the studio facility. Hagans has been a principal player in this type of planning. "In some Clear Channel markets there are already plans in place for moving a facility to another facility. For example, Premiere Radio Networks and the Clear Channel/Los Angeles cluster have a plan in place to back one another up and it works; it's been tested."

Wasted planning

Throughout my conversations with Hagans and Hadfield, and from paying attention to the news of the disaster and its aftermath, it was obvious to me that the most difficult issues were really not technical ones at all; they were people issues. Immediately after the scope of the disaster became apparent, corporate management in both companies leaped in to action. David Field, the president of Entercom, appointed an emergency panel of the three company executives--Marty Hadfield, Ken Beck (the Entercom vice president of news and sports programming) and Noreen McCormick (the Entercom vice president of human resources) to coordinate the company's response. They formed a war room in Beck's office in Seattle, where each member of the committee is headquartered, and ran the show from there.

At the Clear Channel technical management headquarters in Tulsa, OK, the reaction was swift. Steve Davis, the senior vice president of engineering for Clear Channel, coordinated Clear Channel's entire triage and restoration effort and quickly had people from the CCTM office along with several of the Clear Channel regional engineering VPs on the ground and in action in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Biloxi, MS. Dick Lewis, Clear Channel's regional VP and market manager for the New Orleans area, played a crucial role in the coordination and facilitation of the emergency work.

Hadfield was in the middle of the process when I spoke to him. "The people [in New Orleans and environs] were extremely receptive to our help because of our outside perspective."

�You have to treat the people who are involved in this recovery with care and concern because they are under an incredible amount of stress," said Hadfield. "They are all heroes. They love their communities. Sometimes they have to be told to stop and sit out for some time.

"If they go too long they may need to be rescued themselves. The rescuers have to stay rescuers; they can't turn into victims."

Hagans had similar sentiments after his first week of triage work in New Orleans. I asked him if he had seen local engineers and others heading for the burnout stage.

"A lot of the staff had lost their homes. One of the engineers was staying with his brother; his house was flooded. Everyone worked really long hours and did his best to keep a radio-face on, and each had his own personal issues to deal with as well. I don't know how many people were lost between Clear Channel and Entercom--I think it was a small number--but the loss of friends and loved ones, along with the loss of personal property is a pretty significant thing that will eventually get to them. Maybe not for weeks because they're dealing with so many other things that are taking their minds off of their own losses and they're seeing others that may have lost even more, but eventually it'll hit."

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Joe Pollet, Kevin Duplantis (both from NOLA) and Mike Cooney (from Kansas City) work quickly to get stations up and running.

Clear Channel has taken the step of bringing in grief counselors experienced in the aftermath of disasters such as this to help its employees. Entercom is doing all it can to help its employees as well.

"Some of [the Entercom employers] had evacuated early and they had spread out to nearby states. We set up a call center so that people could check in via telephone or e-mail," said Hadfield. "You plan for the events, but all the secondary and tertiary needs catch up with you."

A means by which engineers and others at the stations can keep from getting burned out is being practiced by both of the company's engineering management teams. Mike Hagans, after working for a week in New Orleans, was replaced on site by Troy Langham, a member of the CCTM team from Tulsa. Hagans had similarly replaced Langham onsite one week earlier.

Entercom carried out a similar plan. The person about to go in to the mandatory rest period would be shadowed for two days by the person that would fill in for him, and then they in turn would shadow that person for a day after the four-day rest period so that he could get "caught up" on what was happening.

What are you taking for granted?

As we carry out our day-to-day business it is easy to become complacent and to simply start taking the means by which we satisfy our most basic needs for granted. At a radio station, the most basic needs are a place at which a program can be produced along with ac power. There is a roof to keep out the rain and a dry floor. At a transmitter site, the most basic needs are similar: a roof and four walls along with a dry floor, plenty of power and a tower or antenna system. Every day the station's employees come and go from home in similar style. But what if one day, unexpectedly, it just wasn't so?

Through an unprecedented cooperative effort, the two companies, normally at odds with one another as competitors, put aside everything else so that they could serve the citizens of the greater New Orleans area in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The technical infrastructure of Clear Channel made it possible, and power, strength and tradition of news at WWL made it effective.

Will your station be ready to do the same should the need arise? The implementation of a plan and the drills necessary to see if the plan works will consume a lot of time and expense. With the Hurricane Katrina disaster still top-of-mind, there is no time like the present to develop plans and to present them to management, colleagues and family.

Irwin is director of engineering for Clear Channel Radio in Seattle.

In the course of researching this article, the author spoke primarily with two people about their experiences. There is story upon story marked with the heroism of those that lived through the event and the aftermath � too many to tell, and too many names to mention. If you are one of those people, please understand not everyone can be mentioned, and know your efforts were no less important.