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.