Ridge Takes the Point

Says Homeland Security department will coordinate emergency-communications planning at all levels

Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge last week welcomed media executives' call for his agency to take the lead in coordinating their companies' emergency-communications planning with federal, state and local officials.

Establishing a lead federal agency as the focal point of media/government planning for terrorist or other disasters is a central tenet of recommendations unveiled by an industry council established by the FCC in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The council's ultimate goal is to design a plan that will ensure that communications systems remain in operation during large-scale emergencies.

"The media during times of crisis is a critical part of what we do," Ridge told executives from more than 40 broadcast, cable and satellite companies as well as government and public-safety officials participating in the Media Security and Reliability Council.

The council last week recommended "best practices" for media companies to follow during crises and drew up a game plan for eliminating physical vulnerabilities of transmission towers, cable headends and other parts of the communications infrastructure.

Ridge recognized that media outlets can minimize the impact of disaster, thus the need for an ongoing dialogue on the issue. "We are never going to design a failsafe system. We're never going to eliminate the threat" so "we have to sustain this conversation."

Recommendations from two working groups (public communications and infrastructure) were unveiled May 28, with up or down votes from participating companies on the ideas due June 18. A final version of the guidelines is expected in December.

Participants in last week's meeting were full of praise for the effort and the participation of the various industries and government and public-safety organizations. But sources involved with the project say frustration lurks behind the scenes because of differing views over the direction and pace of the initiative.

Many of the corporate executives have been pushing the FCC to more aggressively to urge state and local governments to step up their participation in the Emergency Alert System. Although EAS equipment can be activated to broadcast local emergency alerts generated by state officials, the only required feature is a relic of the Cold War: the capability to broadcast the president's messages to the nation following a nuclear strike or other emergency.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell said the successful incorporation of missing-child "AMBER" alerts into EAS demonstrates the potential in warnings for other local emergencies. "Perhaps there is an analogy for terrorist situations," he said.

To bring the system up to date with better local features, a central agency needs to be in charge, the media executives say.

"We believe leadership in this area should come from the Department of Homeland Security," said John Eck, president of NBC broadcast and network operations. In a not-so-veiled hint of the FCC's reluctance to flex muscle over state and local governments, Eck said his working group on public communications "didn't want to come right out and say" that Ridge's department was the best choice.

Eck's group recommended a number of steps to ensure that the media are "an effective amplifier of government information" during crises. Among them:

  • Coordination of each media outlet's role, including foreign-language messages, should be planned and other means of dissemination identified.
  • Local EAS practices should be standardized.
  • Information cooperatives should be established to share local "best practices."

Bruce Allan, CEO of Harris Broadcast Communications and leader of the council's working group on infrastructure, said one goal is to develop a transmission standard that will work not only with new digital television but with all digital communications devices, such as personal computers and personal digital assistants. "We would like all digital devices to be capable of receiving this."

The oldest telecom device—radio—might, however, be one of the most critical components in emergency communications, given that power outages likely to accompany a catastrophe may leave battery-operated devices the only ones working. "Radio becomes the lowest common denominator," Allen said.

Dennis FitzSimons, council chairman and chief executive of Tribune Co., said the industry has a difficult job ahead of it: "This is no small task."