The threat from the recent fires to the tower farm on Mount Wilson from which many of the radio and television stations serving the Los Angeles area operate highlight the need for broadcasters to have an emergency plan in the event that some local catastrophe affects their tower site. The fact that this fire comes near to the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, where many broadcasters lost power, but where others where able to provide a lifeline to their communities, reminds broadcasters that emergencies can strike anywhere in the country, and broadcasters need to be ready. The FCC’s Public Notice issued this week, adopting special procedures for stations in the area affected by the fire, demonstrate that the FCC is ready to work with broadcasters to provide service in the time of a widespread disaster, relaxing many of its normal rules. The FCC has been very good in helping stations in the event of a mass disaster – even helping broadcasters during Katrina cut through the red tape of other agencies in order to assure their continued operation. But broadcasters need to familiarize themselves with the rules about emergency operations, and be ready to deal with a more isolated disaster that may not receive enough attention for the FCC to, on its own, relax these rules.
One of the rules highlighted by the FCC’s public notice is Section 73.1250(f) of the Commission’s Rules, which allows an AM station to operate at night with its daytime power in the event of an emergency. As many AMs operate only during daylight hours, and others routinely reduce power at night or use a directional antenna that restricts radiation in directions which may contain significant populations, this ability to continue to operate with daytime power and antenna pattern at night can allow a station to fully serve its community in times of emergency. However, a broadcaster taking advantage of this provision needs to observe the requirements of the rule. First, it must notify the FCC that it is operating under this rule within 48 hours of beginning to do so. If the station causes irreparable interference to another station, it may be forced to curtail such operations. Moreover, the operation must be on a noncommercial basis (apparently to limit any financial incentive for a station to abuse this provision). And finally, one issue not addressed in the FCC’s public notice about the Southern California fires, the use is only permitted if there is no other full-time service "serving the public need." Obviously, that last clause is open to interpretation, but it would certainly seem to preclude an AM daytimer co-owned and simulcasting an FM station that covers the same are from suddenly operating at night.
Other operations from temporary sites typically need prior FCC approval, unless the site is authorized as a licensed auxiliary transmitter site by the FCC. Often, FM or TV stations who replace an antenna will keep the old antenna mounted on their tower, ready for back-up operations in the event of a lightening strike or other problem with their new antenna. Given the tower threats that we have seen in Los Angeles, and which have occurred in hurricanes and other storms where the towers themselves are damaged, more thought should be given to auxiliary facilities on sites other than the same tower from which the main antenna is located.
Auxiliary sites can be authorized pursuant to Section 73.1675 within the .5 mv/m contour of an AM station, the 1 mv/m of an FM or the Grade B of a TV station. Where a station makes a change in its transmission system, and wants to license the formerly licensed facility as an auxiliary, it can do so on an FCC on a Form 302 license application, with an exhibit demonstrating that the proposed auxiliary would not extend the contour of the station. If the licensee proposes a new site as an auxiliary, a construction permit application on FCC Form 301 (or 340 for a noncommercial station) must be filed and approved.
In an emergency where there is authorized no back-up site, a licensee will normally need to get prior FCC approval before going on the air from a site other than its authorized site, or with facilities different than those authorized. Stations should file an STA (Special Temporary Authority) request with the FCC to get approval for the temporary facilities. If a station is knocked off the air and has no site that it can use, it must notify the FCC within 10 days, and ask for permission to stay silent if the station is off the air 30 days. And, as we’ve written, a station normally needs to be back on the air within one year, or its license will be canceled. While the Commission has given some stations a waiver of this policy in a mass disaster area like that which occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, don’t expect much latitude if a more limited incident causes a station to go off the air.
Planning ahead for disasters is important for broadcasters, so that they can continue to serve their communities. Not only is this a business issue, but it is also an FCC policy issue, The service that broadcasters provide to their community in the event of a disaster is used by the NAB and other broadcast representatives in connection with all sorts of policy issues in Washington – from the push to get FM chips inserted into iPhones to provide emergency information, to arguments against the "Performance Tax" and localism regulations. Broadcasters don’t want to give their critics ammunition – so get your emergency plans in order.