April 08, 2020

Emergency broadcast system breaks down

When the Great Storm of ’98 darkened half of Maine last week, it also unplugged the state’s Emergency Alert System like a string of Christmas lights. Between Thursday and Sunday, Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television stations throughout the state offered listeners mostly static and snow, rendering ineffectual the system that tells residents where to tune for important information.

Although state emergency officials say the system was never intended to update people about such subjects as power restoration, they acknowledge that the lack of generators at Maine Public Broadcasting Corp. was a deficiency.

“We recognize that the nonavailability of Maine Public Radio has made the Emergency Alert System ineffective, and that’s something we need to correct,” said Bill Libby, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency, a state-funded agency.

Speaking on Sunday, when all of the public radio stations had been off the air since Thursday, Libby said the stations did their job because they warned listeners that the storm was coming.

“If the … system were operational today I would not be using it to alert people to the status of power restoration. That is not its purpose.”

Five of the six radio stations were on the air Sunday evening. The Waterville station began broadcasting again Tuesday.

By Thursday night, all Maine Public Television stations, except for WMEA-TV in Sanford were back on the air.

And although two years of requests by Maine Public Broadcasting Corp. for state help in acquiring an emergency generator did not yield results, state officials say the problems during the storm may lead to solutions.

A state committee began working two years ago to plan an alternative to the familiar Emergency Broadcast System, which was in place from the 1940s until the end of 1996.

Under the old system, one channel alerted the next of a problem, and the chain continued until all stations were reached. But the EBS had bottlenecks, exacerbated by the modern tendency to run some stations automatically.

The new Emergency Alert System requires broadcasters to install special equipment that can translate emergency signals automatically and play relevent information in a given area. But, officials said, the system works best when it alerts people to discrete events such a thunderstorm, a hazardous spill or a train derailment.

“At what point do you declare an emergency? Is a hurricane an emergency? These are questions we asked ourselves,” said Gil Maxwell, chairman of the State Emergency Communications Committee, which developed Maine’s plan.

“We defined an emergency as something that needed immediate notification to the people, that they were totally unaware.”

When Maxwell and his colleagues put together the state plan, they had no money to work with from either the state or federal government. So, he said, they made their plans for single events, based on existing stations and their networks. Maine Public Broadcasting Corp. seemed like a natural, since its five television and six radio stations reach residents throughout the state.

The committee also looked at probabilities, and decided that it was unlikely that two stations in the same area would be out of order and unable to broadcast information about, for instance, a hazardous spill. The backup station in the Bangor area is WHCF 88.5 FM.

But what about an ice storm that strands two-thirds of the state’s populace in the dark for days or weeks?

“That’s a decision that has to be made by the state,” said Maxwell, who also is MPBC’s engineering director. “If they want the system to survive this kind of catastrophe, then the resources have to be there to shore it up.”

That means generators.

“We warned them,” Maxwell said, referring to the State Emergency Communications Committee. “I told them what the weaknesses were. We discussed the weaknesses at length, but it was decided based upon what was going on that it was acceptable.”

Maine Public Radio, he said, is a nonprofit organization that receives some state funding and operates with a fixed budget each year. It receives no money or other special compensation for its participation in the emergency system.

The broadcaster cannot simply go out and sell more commercials or raise rates to cover the costs of generators and other items that could have kept the stations on the air, he explained. And maximizing the possibility of staying on air could cost upwards of $200,000, Maxwell said.

While no numbers have yet been discussed, Joe Grimmig, communications officer for the Maine Emergency Management Agency, said the storm actually may help free some funds. His office has asked Maxwell to itemize MPBC’s needs, and Grimmig will submit at least some of those requests to the federal government as the Federal Emergency Management Agency frees funds to help Maine.

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