Disaster Readiness Examined

Oct 10, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Some 150 members of the Media Security and Reliability Council gathered in Oklahoma City last week to focus on ways to protect and strengthen the media during times of national crisis.

The Hurricane Katrina disaster lent a timely resonance and potency to the meeting, having dramatically underscored the essential role-and the vulnerability-of the media in a time of crisis.

One key message of the gathering was that “We have to be recognized by government agencies and public safety people as first informers, and our role as first informers needs to be well recognized. I think we also need to be identified as people in the first-response group,” said Hearst-Argyle Television President and CEO David Barrett, who succeeded founding MSRC Chairman (and Tribune Co. Chairman and CEO) Dennis FitzSimons as chairman of the group last year.

“‘Trust us, we can help’ was one of the themes here,” Mr. Barrett said. “Along with public safety officials and the governments, we have a stake in serving the public. It is worth underscoring that.”

Among those attending the MRSC meeting was Barbara Kreisman, chief of the video division of the Media Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission and the FCC point person for MSRC.

The primary purpose of MSRC is to disseminate to stations in all 210 U.S. TV markets the experiences, lessons and latest in forward thinking on being prepared for all manner of emergencies. There is no federal mandate attached to the organization, which was formed in 2002 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks by the media and related industries and entities-from broadcasters and cable and satellite providers to manufacturers and public safety officials-to develop and recommend ways to develop “best practices” by which the industry might buttress its reliability during crises and aim for invulnerability to catastrophic events and the ability to bounce back after taking a hard hit.

MSRC, which has had the blessing of both FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and his predecessor, Michael Powell, keeps the FCC very much in the loop. A summary of last Thursday’s discussions and last Friday’s post-mortem will be submitted Nov. 30 to the FCC, Mr. Barrett said.

Tim Morrissey, president and general manager of NBC affiliate KFOR-TV and divisional VP of the New York Times Broadcast Group, helped assemble broadcasters from Katrina country who spoke in person, via satellite and on videotape. He worked in New Orleans before moving to Oklahoma in 1996.

The points driven home ranged from the need to stockpile significant amounts of food and water, and gas and diesel fuel for vehicles and generators, to how recognizable station-branded clothing can open many doors for crews working under challenging situations.

Communications proved a particular problem after Katrina socked the Gulf Coast. Even the best-stocked network news contingent found it more difficult to communicate-whether via cellphone, satellite phone, BlackBerry, texting, two-way radio or computer-in the affected area than it had been in the area struck by the tsunami last December.

While a simple, fail-safe technological solution is not on the horizon, stations can and should take away one measure from the experience: “Don’t rely on just one system,” Mr. Morrissey said.

Another thing Hurricane Katrina proved was that the Internet can be a viable platform for dispensing information when broadcasters are knocked off the air. However, broadcasters now know they need to plan to maintain their station Web sites from remote locations.

Oklahoma City, the site of the meeting, was tested in 1995 by the worst case of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed, killing 168 people.