When disaster strikes locally, viewers turn to the local media for help. And few media outlets are better suited to this mission than community-access TV stations.
by James Careless
Not only do community-access stations provide a direct link from local government to citizens, they also can focus on specific local concerns and efforts that might be overlooked by major media in a large metropolitan area.
As a result, community-access stations such as BECON TV and El Segundo Television are the viewers’ first and best line to official information and assistance.
“BECON TV is a full power UHF broadcast channel that broadcasts on cable, satellite and over the air,” said Dr. Phyllis Schiffer-Simon, general manager of the station. “It is designated as the emergency station for Broward County, Florida, and is committed to providing important updates for the community during emergencies. ... Since we are in South Florida and have seen our share of hurricanes, we knew it was important to have plans in place for emergency communications.”
Meanwhile, on the Pacific Coast, “El Segundo Television (ESTV) in California is the city’s local channel that airs on Time Warner Cable and AT&T U-Verse television systems,” said Program Director Dan O’Toole. “Our city has always been forward thinking on emergency preparedness. We have a close proximity to a major refinery and LAX airport, so preparedness for major events is warranted.”
On Guard on the Atlantic
Given its location on Florida’s hurricane-prone Atlantic seaboard, Broward County (including Fort Lauderdale) takes emergency planning very, very seriously. Through the county’s Emergency Management website, for example, there are links for hurricane updates (to warn residents by e-mail), hurricane preparedness tips and “generator-ready” businesses that may be open in the aftermath of a storm, even though power is still out for many residents.
BECON TV is ready to respond with local news and information during emergency situations.
When trouble occurs, BECON TV (winner of five regional Emmy awards for programming excellence) serves as residents’ direct link to local government. By watching BECON TV’s over-the-air or cable/satellite TV signals, viewers can see what is being done on their behalf directly.
“We partner with our EOC (Emergency Operations Center) and the county’s Communications Department to bring viewers press conferences before, during and after emergencies on BECON TV,” explains Schiffer-Simon. “We have provided continual coverage during hurricanes like Wilma [which caused $20 billion in damage to Florida in 2005] to ensure that the community was kept abreast of the resources available to them. This included shelter access, school closings/reopenings and information about where residents could get water and gasoline. We also notified the county workforce when they were expected to return to work, following the closure of schools and government offices.”
BECON TV does this using its staff members, all working around the clock fulfilling their officially-defined roles.
Meanwhile, in L.A.
El Segundo is a city of 16,000, located on Santa Monica Bay in Los Angeles County. Because of the ever-present threat of earthquakes, “El Segundo has an emergency operation plan and our station is part of that operation,” says O’Toole. “We operate our station for public information and report directly to the assigned PIO (Public Information Officer) during activation of the EOC.” Like BECON TV, El Segundo TV keeps its viewers informed about emergency aid, shelters, school closings, and any information that is central to public safety.
To date, the staff at El Segundo TV have been lucky. Despite their location in an earthquake zone, the station has yet to be activated in an emergency posture.
“So far, we have participated in several drills including a statewide earthquake exercise,” says O’Toole. Staged on Nov. 13, 2008, the exercise was known as The Great Southern California ShakeOut.
“We got to help write scenarios for our city for this exercise and I included a news team that descended upon the city and began asking probing questions about the day’s events and the city’s response to the emergency,” he says, thus “adding an additional level of tension.”
Preparation and Planning
When it comes to effective emergency response, preparation and planning before an event is of paramount importance. That’s a point that Schiffer-Simon and O’Toole both take great pains to stress.
“Having an emergency plan is vital as is partnering with the local government’s communications team to deliver important information to residents,” says Schiffer-Simon.
“Hierarchy with in the EOC is very important when dealing with emergencies,” O’Toole adds. “Coordinating clear messages to the public that are consistent though all channels of media output is essential.”
Realistic multi-agency exercises are central to devising robust, workable emergency plans, he notes. “During every exercise, our city and our station have identified key components to expedite our message systems,” O’Toole says. “The exercises help identify operational changes that make it easier when dealing with different city departments and safety personnel that may not be experience in media broadcast.”
Deciding beforehand what information a community-access station should and should not broadcast is also important. It is not helpful to tie up the airwaves with trivia that is not top priority when lives are at stake. Conversely, leaving out details that matter — such as where help, shelter and food/water can be found — can be just as big a mistake.
O’Toole does his best to balance these factors when planning his emergency coverage.
“My goal is to refine the message that will be valuable at the local level,” he says. “Also, I have found that contact information and services status for each level of emergency is vital. For example, in a major earthquake, we want to tell people that ‘If your life is not in peril, do not call in to emergency services as all services are committed to life-saving activities.’ We also find that putting up slides and crawls with gas company, electric company and school pickup sites are helpful.”
“During an emergency, I coordinate to put the same message out to TV, low-power AM and Web pages,” he adds. “This redundancy allows people to use a variety of sources for info from us that is consistent.”
One last point: “For emergencies we have premade slides with text boxes, so add-ins can be done on the fly at any location from either PC or Mac,” says O’Toole. “We color-code borders so people will easily distinguish different types and levels of messages.”
BECON TV focuses its attention on providing authoritative information that viewers can count on. “It’s important for viewers to know they can turn to one source for updates on important information during countywide emergencies,” says Schiffer-Simon.
Her station also takes pains to ensure that it can broadcast when the power goes out. “We have an emergency generator to ensure the transmitter stays operational,” she says. “We were able to broadcast throughout Hurricane Wilma, which was a Category 4 storm.”
The Bottom Line
The evidence is clear: Community-access stations are ideally positioned to provide effective emergency coverage to their viewing audiences. This is why Schiffer-Simon sees BECON TV’s role during emergencies as “Very vital. Other commercial stations do not give the detail and specific information to the extent that we can,” she says. “They also focus on more than one county, so the information is broader in scope.”
“Communication to the public during any emergency is vital,” says O’Toole. “Updating messages to keep the community informed assures our residents that El Segundo City services are active. [As well] Any information that can redirect or reduce non-emergency call volume helps keep vital communication sources open for use by emergency responders and safety personnel.”
No matter how large or small their operations, community-access station managers should take note of these facts, and get their emergency plans in line before disaster hits. When your viewers and local government turn to your station for help, you want to be there for them.
EL SEGUNDO TELEVISION
THE GREAT SHAKEOUT