California Stations Plan for 'The Big One'

July's earthquake in L.A. got California stations as ready as possible for The Big One

Earthquakes have been part of KNBC Los Angeles VP/News Director Robert Long's life longer than they haven't. He experienced his first in San Diego back around late '66, he says, as he was enjoying a night on the town with his Marine Corps buddies before being sent to Vietnam. The light over the pool table began to sway, Long recalls, and he wondered if he'd quaffed one too many whiskeys.

Long later experienced more quakes as a California newsman. There was Sylmar in 1971, which his cat presaged with an Olympian leap out of bed a few seconds before it hit; Northridge in 1994, which sent KNBC's televisions crashing to the floor; and most recently, the Chino Hills earthquake on July 29, measuring 5.4 on the Richter scale.

That quake caused no fatalities, but it put an exclamation point on an alarming fact that had come up three months earlier. In April, a group of scientists and engineers, working with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), released an official forecast of California earthquake probability, and the findings were frightful: They suggest a better than 99% chance of an earthquake measuring 6.7 or greater hitting the state sometime in the next 30 years, and a 46% chance of one posting a 7.5. (The Northridge quake, which claimed at least 60 victims and rang up $25 billion in damage, registered a 6.7.)

The prospect of a giant quake is always top of mind for station managers, and never more so than now. Many are taking advantage of technological advancements, such as mobile applications, user content and even Slingbox to better deliver crucial quake information. Each successive quake—even a relatively tame one like July's—is viewed as vital hands-on practice for The Big One.

Univision station KMEX Los Angeles will hold Earthquake Preparedness Week starting Oct. 13, with media outlets practicing communications and viewers posing questions to experts via a toll-free line. “After this past earthquake hit, we realized we had to plan something for our viewers,” says VP/General Manager Maelia Macin.

And the USGS and the California Office of Emergency Services, among others, are preparing what is essentially a fake quake on Nov. 13, bringing in hundreds of scientists and emergency responders and encouraging the whole of Los Angeles to take part in emergency drills when the quake “hits” at 10 a.m. (Residents are urged to at the very least “Drop, Cover and Hold On.”)

Preparation is essential, though prior experience doesn't make the situation easier to deal with. “I go back a long time with earthquakes, and I hate them,” says Long, who credited anchors Jennifer Bjorklund and Chris Schauble for keeping cool on air during the July quake, as opposed to the KNBC anchors seen scrambling under the desk during an '87 quake.

Those in the news business are not afforded the luxury of sneaking off to their safe place, be it metaphorical or actual, when the ground starts to shake. “What it comes down to is something awful happens and you cover it,” Long says. “Our business is public safety—breaking news in the service of public safety.”

Earthquakes elicit conflicting instincts in news professionals—the innate sense of self-preservation, and the reflexive impulse to dig out information and relay it to viewers. And such grand-scale disasters are hardly limited to those plying their trade near the San Andreas Fault, as victims of floods, wildfires and terrorism know all too well. “Every station in the country has issues like this,” says KRON San Francisco President/General Manager Mark Antonitis. “Everybody needs to have their disaster plan.”

Still, managers concede that the best-laid plans are essentially out the window once the heavy shaking starts. “You might know what to do when A, B or C happens,” says KNSD San Diego VP of News Greg Dawson. “But once D happens, you have to improvise.”

Sources agree that Rule No. 1 is ensuring the safety of staffers. Stations stock up on rations, water and first-aid supplies; KTTV Los Angeles veteran reporter Christina Gonzalez keeps an overnight bag stuffed with fire-resistant gear, water pills, a knife and a toothbrush, along with a printout of state laws regarding reporter access to disaster zones, in the truck for emergency reporting.

Stations hold emergency drills, bring in crisis consultants to offer detailed contingency plans and keep dog-eared emergency handbooks on each floor. Frank N. Magid TV President Steve Ridge says Sept. 11 ushered in an era when virtually every station has come up with some sort of disaster plan. “If you own a TV license, you have a plan of some kind,” he says, “no matter how sophisticated it is.”

But some are leery of a false sense of security stemming from too much earthquake planning. “I'm not a big fan of playbooks—I've never seen one actually used [during a disaster],” Long says. “I don't want people to think there's only one way to do something in an emergency.”

At the very least, managers say it's vital for staffers to know where to go when a quake hits to avoid the entire newsroom calling the desk at once. Once the individual and family are deemed safe, reporters can begin to cover it. “That way, when you get to work, you can actually concentrate on work,” says KCBS/KCAL Los Angeles VP/News Director Nancy Bauer Gonzalez.

Stations in high-risk areas have devised innovative plans to keep content flowing. They stock up on generators and Uninterruptible Power Supply backups, employ satellite and microwave technology to go live should the facility become inoperable, and ring up two-way radios for when the cellphones are down. KTVU San Francisco-Oakland VP/General Manager Tim McVay speaks of broadcasting from sister KICU should the main station be shut down. KTTV is experimenting with a text-messaging system for internal communications, and KCBS is looking into an out-of-state telephone hub should all in-state communications fail; Bauer Gonzalez came up with the idea while filling in emergency numbers for her daughter's school.

Some stations record and file earthquake reports to air when the crisis strikes; KTTV, for one, has segments on turning off gas in the home and administering basic first aid. Some news directors send trucks home with photographers each night, eating the cost of wear and tear and gas for the luxury of having the rigs spread throughout the market, not isolated at headquarters.

Stations are boosting their multicast options should broadcasting functionality fail, and partnering with local radio outlets to have backups when a quake strikes. KNBC teams with the local NPR station and others on the fringes of the market, and KPIX San Francisco will work with the Hearst newspaper San Francisco Chronicle and corporate sibling CNET to get content out in a crisis. KPIX has also worked out airing KCBS radio hosts in their studio should the TV station be unable to get its talent on-air.

“You can't be linear about how you report news—there are many ways to do it,” says Long, who used KNBC's News Raw digital channel for extra coverage of the July quake. “The most important commodity in a disaster is information.”

Stations are also relying on new or expanded bureaus to work out of should the mother ship fail. KPIX has built up its San Jose newsroom, which features a direct link to the broadcast tower. KTTV started a bureau in the San Fernando Valley this past summer for essentially that reason. “That way, not everybody has to come [to headquarters],” says VP/News Director Jose Rios.

Stations' digital chiefs are increasingly tasked with tapping the latest technology to reach users with up-to-the minute news. Univision's KMEX had the good fortune to launch its “Noticias 34 Móvil” application, which sends breaking news and video to mobile devices, the day before July's earthquake. Maelia Macin calls Móvil, which issued four to five video clips during that quake, “an informational lifeline” for Los Angeles' Hispanic community.

Elsewhere in the market, KTTV relies on its CUBE (Caltech-USGS Broadcast of Earthquakes) program, which offers real-time earthquake magnitude, location and depth, and helps Rios plan deployment. Stations are also expanding the viability of platforms for would-be citizen journalists to supply their own reportage. KCBS launched You Report a few weeks ago; as with CNN's iReport and Fox News' UReport, users send in not only photos and video, but also questions to ask at news conferences, as train buffs did after the fatal Metrolink train crash Sept. 12.

As was seen in Galveston, Texas, recently, where general managers spoke of residents dropping extension cords out of windows so others could plug in laptops after Hurricane Ike, the Web is an increasingly vital lifeline in a disaster. KPIX VP/News Director Dan Rosenheim credits an operations manager for repurposing Slingbox, a consumer product that allows viewers to watch local television remotely, to get live shots from some 50 fixed cameras around the market. “We do it quite routinely now,” he says.

KCBS, for its part, has harnessed Web-based telephone service Skype to report live to the Web, as it did during the train tragedy. “That opens up a whole world for us,” says Bauer Gonzalez, who cites the perks of going live without having to navigate a truck into a restricted (and hazardous) site.

Unlike a hurricane or wildfire, reporters say the toughest thing about a quake is that one never knows when it's coming, or where. Stations are getting some help with preparations from government and trade associations. Besides working on a “next-generation” Emergency Alert System, with messages sent to targeted areas and delivered in different languages, the FCC is building a Commercial Mobile Alert System to send news to cellphones. (That's scheduled to launch in 2010.)

California Broadcasters Association President/CEO Stan Statham mentions eight station general managers convening with FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein in San Francisco in mid-September to discuss, among other things, earthquake preparedness. “They've been waiting for The Big One [for over 100 years],” Statham says of Bay Area stations. “There's been a lot of coordination and awareness and planning. They will remain on the air.”

That same give-and-take between officials and the media has not been as healthy in preparation for the Nov. 13 fake quake. Two months before the so-called Great Southern California ShakeOut, station managers say they'd hardly been asked to participate. Some wonder about the 10 a.m. start; only KTTV has local news at that time, managers say.

ShakeOut spokesperson Dale Cox says he's had preliminary discussions with KNBC, KABC and KTLA about playing a role. (Time Warner Cable is among the ShakeOut sponsors.) “There's been some information exchanged, but nothing's really been nailed down,” he says.

Golden State reporters say The Big One is never fully out of mind, even if some days it's a fleeting notion. When the massive quake finally does hit, news veterans will call on the skills they've built up over the years, they'll improvise when needed, and they'll hope for the best.

“The day it happens, we won't have thought of everything,” says KRON's Antonitis. “That's when you just have to think on your feet.”

And as much as they're hard-core competitors, some managers say they can count on cooperation with rival stations in the midst of a crisis. When San Diego was hit by wildfires last year, stations shared helicopter footage. KNSD's Dawson expects the viewer-first ethos to prevail in case of a major earthquake. “In those situations, you're not competitors,” he says. “We all got into the business to serve the public; we're all in it together.”