More and more states are considering legislation that would help broadcasters stay on-air during an emergency. Illinois and Nevada have passed such laws. The efforts are backed by state broadcasting groups and a suggestion has been floated for a federal law or rule raising the status of broadcasters in emergency situations.
Stations Say First Informer Status Is Crucial
When the TV stations in Biloxi, Miss., were dangerously low on fuel following Hurricane Katrina, the Mississippi Association of Broadcasters sent a truck loaded with gasoline to the coastal city to keep them on the air.
The delivery never made it. Authorities confiscated the shipment in case some other entity — perhaps, say, a hospital — needed it more.
“They came out with guns drawn, and took my truck and took my driver,” says MAB President Jackie Lett. “It was a zoo.”
The MAB ultimately got fuel to TV stations by hiding small quantities under tarps in the back of pickup trucks.
The incident occurred seven years ago, but it still looms large for broadcasters around the country who say the event demonstrates the need for laws that insure broadcasters’ ability to stay on air during emergencies.
Such laws give broadcasters access to their facilities to do what’s necessary to stay on-air during an emergency — refuel generators and repair damaged equipment, for example, even if the area is off limits to others.
“The governor can have all the press conferences he wants to have,” Lett says “But he’s not preaching to anyone if he can’t get it out over the air.”
Illinois, which enacted a “first informers” law just last month, and Nevada are the only two states to have such legislation on the books. Nevada’s law is four years old.
The legislators in both states passed the bills unanimously.
Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina broadcasters are in the process developing similar proposals.
The New Jersey Broadcasters Association’s Paul Rotella says he will ask state legislators to consider such a bill, an idea that is getting particularly good response in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Rotella also says he would like to see a federal law or rule raising the status of broadcasters in emergency situations. To that end, he has requested the FCC to take up the issue and plans to ask for the National Alliance of State Broadcasters Associations to take up the cause when the group meets in March.
“No one gets the word out like free, over-the-air broadcasters,” Rotella says.
Following Katrina, Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, sponsored a bill that would have given broadcasters across the country “first informer” status, and the greater access to equipment that comes with it.
The bill never made it out of committee.
But the National Association of Broadcasters’ Dennis Wharton says the organization backed Landrieu’s bill at the time. Should a similar proposal be introduced, “it would be something that the NAB would strongly support, given the lifeline role played by broadcasters during emergencies,” he says.
Under the new Illinois law, individual broadcasters will be able to choose “key personnel” to go through the emergency credentialing process — which is still being developed and will include special training — with engineers likely topping the list, says Dennis Lyle, president of the Illinois Broadcasters Association.
Although an anchor or, say, cameraman may also get credentials, the rest of a station’s news team isn’t as likely.
“This legislation is to get key personnel to a station — not to get reporters to a story,” he says.
Once the credentialing process is completed, the association, along with other emergency responders, will likely stage a mock disaster in a market like Rockford (DMA 134) to see how their plan works, he says.
“This recognizes that we need to talk to them, and they need to talk to us,” Lyle says.
In Nevada, the four-year-old law will enable broadcasters to get first responder credentials, says the Nevada Broadcasters Association’s Bob Fisher.
Designating them as first responders means they will be involved in emergency management plans from the ground up, Fisher says. “It means that we will be working together every day versus all of a sudden in an emergency,” he says.
Two months or so ago, the state’s sheriffs and police chiefs association endorsed a proposed curriculum that would provide broadcasters training as first responders, Fisher says.
The Nevada and Illinois laws are similar in nature, and could be models for other states, he says.
“Nevada and Illinois should not be the only states where broadcasters are considered on an equal level with every other first responder,” Fisher says. “The fact is that in this country there are still law enforcement agencies and emergency managers that don’t understand there is a difference in being invited to the party and giving the party.”
Whether broadcasters do, in fact, have that parity has been the source of some friction between broadcasters and other emergency workers. Legislation introduced in Mississippi, for example, soon after Katrina got derailed because first responders, “people who put their lives on the line every day,” opposed broadcasters having the same designation, Lett says.
The majority of broadcasters, including those in Illinois, have put that issue aside, adopting the term “first informers” instead.
Lett says Mississippi broadcasters will try again for a law, but in the meantime they have developed a successful working relationship with the state’s emergency management agencies as have broadcasters in other stations, including Alabama, Florida and Wisconsin.
In Wisconsin for instance, the state issues TV and radio station engineers Emergency Broadcaster Personnel ID cards, which allow them to cross police lines to reach station equipment.
But advocates of “first informers” laws say that without the laws, TV and radio stations still run the risk of going dark in critical situations.
Wally Babbidge, the station manager at Media General’s CBS affiliate WHLT in Hattiesburg-Laurel, Miss. (DMA 167), says the important role broadcasters play was abundantly clear when an enormously destructive tornado hit the area little more than a week ago.
He says the warnings the station issued before the tornado — as well as information it broadcast after — had huge impact. One parent emailed the station to say he successfully reached his son in time for him to take cover before the tornado touched down. Afterward, the station relayed information from FEMA and let volunteers know where the Salvation Army would be serving food.
“There is example after example after example of what would have happened if we had not have been there,” Babbidge says. “Without our coverage, people would have really suffered some loss of life.
“When something like this happens, you have stations doing their jobs — that’s protecting the communities they serve,” he says. “It’s just crucial. We are the pulse of the community when it comes to providing information people need to know about life threatening situations.”
Nevada’s Fisher says it’s hard to believe that the role of broadcasters in managing such situations is even up for debate.
“Aren’t we all supposed to be on the same page?” he says. “We have a role and responsibility to keep the public informed.
“You would think with all these emergencies, people would get it.”