A Failure To Communicate

Hurricane Katrina raises concerns over transition to digital

A massive breakdown in communications after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast—nearly four years after the devastating mishaps following 9/11—has brought the issue of emergency communications into the spotlight on Capitol Hill.

“I am closely following the communications failures in Katrina-hit areas,” says Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). “As Congress soon tackles the DTV transition, we must be mindful of these challenges and ensure public safety, emergency response and interoperability remain our paramount focus.”

Washington has started to assess the system failures exposed by the government’s delayed response to Katrina. The ability of police and firefighters to better communicate during emergencies has been one of the major motivations for the DTV transition because some of the spectrum to be reclaimed from broadcasters—almost certainly now sometime in 2009—is to go toward wireless services for first responders.

The issue is sure to come up at DTV-transition hearings in the House and Senate Commerce Committees this month. Kerry says as much, and both committee chairs have expressed concerns about getting spectrum for emergency services.

The FCC will devote its Sept. 15 meeting to Katrina-related communications issues, and the Senate Homeland Security committee may take them up next week, says a committee insider.

The lack of communications among emergency workers following Katrina was especially notable. One police officer, facing a fire at the gateway to the French Quarter, asked CNN to pass along to his colleagues, whom he could not communicate with, that the fire had broken out and potentially threatened the quarter.

Tom Campo, spokesman for Hearst-Argyle, whose WDSU New Orleans has been in the center of the storm and aftermath, says Katrina should inspire a dialogue in Washington about what broadcasters do with the spectrum they have. In terms of Katrina, that has included reporters’ putting themselves at risk by staying in the city to report critical information.

The National Association of Broadcasters, in partnership with broadcasters in Louisiana and Mississippi, distributed 1,300 battery-operated handheld TV sets to public-safety officials working on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The subtext: Broadcasters are also first responders, providing vital news and information to everyone, including police and firefighters.

Even as the consumer-electronics industry bears down on expensive plasma TV sets, the portable battery-operated sets proved more valuable during the Katrina disaster. Yet there is no government mandate for TV sets smaller than 13 inches to have the ability to receive DTV signals.

“Our biggest allies are the sheriffs and police departments across the nation because they understand the value of broadcasters when it comes to public-safety needs,” says NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton.

Nat Ostroff, VP of new technology for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, believes Hurricane Katrina should serve as a wakeup call for broadcasters, the consumer- electronics industry, Congress and Federal Emergency Management Administration.

“If you shut off analog TV in 2009, at least require the availability of battery-operated TV sets for the public so that authorities can reach them in case of an emergency,” he says. “It’s a giant step backwards to 1955 if the only way to reach the public is through AM and FM radio.”

Portable TVs fill gap

The NAB, in filings, has requested that the tuner mandate be extended to sets smaller than 13 inches. But if Congress sees the benefit and enforces it, Ostroff believes small, battery-powered DTVs can be on store shelves by 2007 or 2008. “If they address it in a timely fashion,” he says, “there is plenty of time to get those to market ahead of the turn-off in 2009.”

Congress might be pressured to subsidize digital-to-analog converter boxes to all analog-only sets, since the minority populations often hardest hit by natural disasters tend to make up a greater percentage of those viewers.

“New Orleans is a prime example of our concerns that, in the digital transition, it will be the have-nots who will suffer,” says Jim Keelor, president of Liberty Corp., owner of WLOX Biloxi, Miss. “Nobody likes the word subsidy, but some kind of arrangement has to be made so they can access TV signals.”

The House Commerce Committee, for one, wasn’t waiting for the DTV bills or Homeland Security hearings to weigh in on emergency communications.

The committee expanded a Sept. 7 hearing on gas-price gouging during Katrina to a broader inquiry into all its areas of oversight, including the absence of a national emergency alert (that tone that is annoying unless your life depends on the information to follow).

During extensive questioning from the panel, Ken Moran, director of the FCC’s Office of Homeland Security, said the White House did not issue an emergency alert and that, as far as he knew, neither did any state or local officials.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) cited Katrina-related problems of communications among first responders and with government and victims. She asked Moran, “Are there federal plans with regard to these, so that we have backup redundancies to make sure that this lack of communications never happens again?”

Moran responded that 90% of the infrastructure is privately owned and that it is the government’s job to make sure those systems are as robust as possible.

An unappeased Baldwin said, “Sounds like this could happen again.”

Additional reporting by Ken Kerschbaumer