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Media, CD Adjust Tactics for Emergencies; KSSK’s Ratings Touted To Counter Criticism; State CD’s Absence Leaves an “Empty Chair”

Continuing our report on Tuesday’s Honolulu Community Media Council panel discussion on “Media and Emergency Response”…..

Oahu DEM Wants To Be Quicker

John Cummings of Honolulu County’s Department of Emergency Management (DEM) led off the panel by noting what worked well on October 15th after the two Big Island earthquakes. DEM’s Emergency Operations Center was activated in 17 minutes, and communications among first responders was established quickly.

What needs attention is faster communications to the public. DEM’s first broadcast over radio stations didn’t occur until 50 minutes after the quakes. The agency had anticipated using land lines to contact stations, and that was a major problem, as the stations’ phone lines were clogged with calls from the public. DEM’s personnel had not been trained in using the Emergency Alert System for two years, but State Civil Defense has conducted trainings since October.

Cummings said DEM is developing plans to use the County’s Traffic Information Center as a secondary communications hub in future emergencies. Another goal is to establish a direct link to emergency broadcast station KSSK; DEM currently must route its calls to KSSK through State Civil Defense.

Fixing the Phone Glitch

Chuck Cotton, general manager of the Clear Channel stations in Hawaii (including KSSK) and a member of the Governor-appointed Comprehensive Communications Review Committee, said he felt most media and government officials did a credible job on October 15th. He noted that too many stations were off the air too long, but some stations such as KSSK remained operational during the Hawaiian Electric blackout thanks to backup generators.

Cotton said one of the major lessons learned was to rely on the POT – Plain Old Telephone. With cell phone networks clogged and digital phones inoperative due to the power outage, low-tech telephones plugged into Hawaiian Telcom’s network worked. He also said the Clear Channel stations have begun updating government agencies and other critical communicators with lists of telephone numbers in the stations’ newsrooms and studios. The updates are quarterly, and numbers are changed periodically, as once-private numbers inevitably leak out to the public. (Maintaining lists of unpublished numbers has been one of CHORE's recommendations; Hawaiian Electric learned this lesson the hard way during Hurricane Iwa in 1982, but the lesson was lost in the intervening years – not only to HECO but to civil defense officials.)

A Newspaperman’s Perspective

Honolulu Advertiser Editor Mark Platte joked that from the newspaper’s perspective, the worst possible time for the October emergency to begin was when it did – Sunday morning, about 23 hours before the paper’s next print edition hit the streets. He recounted the difficulty in finding a diesel generator to run the printing press in Kapolei, but he also cited the paper’s success in reporting on the earthquakes and blackout on the Advertiser’s website. Reporters sat in their cars to write on their laptop computers and created stories for the Advertiser’s website, which had 900,000 hits on Sunday and more than one million the next day.

Looking to future emergencies, Platte said a generator will be permanently stationed at the paper’s Kapolei printing facility, and the paper also will find ways to provide power to its Kapiolani Boulevard newsroom.

“Uncontaminated by Information”

Michael Titterton, general manager of Hawaii Public Radio, lamented the loss of electrical power to HPR’s studios on Kaheka Street. Bad as that was, it seemed even worse when power was restored to the stations’ transmitting tower. Titterton brought a laugh from the 70 attendees when he said HPR had a “clean carrier signal uncontaminated by information.”

Titterton said it is especially important for Public Radio to be on the air during periods of community concern, and he’s taking steps to ensure that future blackouts won’t affect HPR. “Some things just have to be done” no matter how daunting the bureaucratic hurdles, he said.

The Blogger’s Pledge – Tactful Directness

CHORE ended the panel discussion by noting that our comments might lack the tact that more time would have afforded. We provided a foundation for our remarks with a brief employment history – KFWB all-news radio in Los Angeles during the February 1971 Sylmar earthquake, and manager of HECO communications during Hurricane Iwa and other major island-wide power outages in the 1980s. That said, we focused our comments on three main points:

• State Civil Defense should have participated in the Media Council panel discussion. SCD is a key link in the communications chain to the public; for the agency to specifically decline participation (as it did several times) suggests a public accountability void. CHORE has advocated SCD briefings for the public since October, and a complete reading of this blog will find several assurances from SCD leaders that meetings would be held (see November 14 post and others). The promised follow-ups to arrange these meetings never happened, and a new explanation for the agency’s reticence was aired on KIPO’s “Town Square” program on February 22; an excerpt can be found in our February 26 post, below. (Marsha Weinert, the State Administration’s liaison to the visitor industry, was to have been on the panel but cancelled on Monday, without a replacement, due to a requirement for her to testify at a hearing at the State Legislature.)

• Emergency broadcast station KSSK could use an “emergency mindset” adjustment. We offered the view that the station’s famed on-air duo of Mike Perry and Larry Price, while deserving of accolades for years of community service and on-air excellence, nevertheless sounded more like their normal entertaining selves on Earthquake Sunday than emergency communicators. They encouraged listeners to phone in with their earthquake anecdotes, which listeners promptly did and thereby clogged telephone lines so thoroughly that first responders couldn’t get through (see earlier comment above on the need to maintain unpublished phone lists for the stations). Unsaid at the luncheon was another criticism of KSSK that’s been noted by many: The station began airing the pre-recorded “John Tesh Radio Show” at 7 p.m. while about half of Oahu was still without electrical power – a decision that reflected the entertainment mindset. CHORE first wrote about this months ago (scroll down to October 22) as the usual accolades were heaped on KSSK and its personalities, yet as we said during the lunch, the uncritical assessments leave no room for improvement, which is something every link in the communications chain must do. (Chuck Cotton responds, below.)

• Honolulu news media failed the public by not reporting regularly on the meetings of the Comprehensive Communications Review Committee. The 70-member body met four times in late October and early November before the first newspaper story appeared about its activities. Since public safety was the subject of those meetings, they were newsworthy and deserved coverage. (Mark Platte later acknowledged that his paper and presumably others could have done a more thorough job of reporting on the Review Committee.)

We’re Number One!

Chuck Cotton responded to a couple points raised by CHORE. He said the Review Committee was conceived as a means for industry and government people to discuss ideas on how to improve communications in emergencies. Many ideas were tossed into the mix, he said – some good, some OK and some not so good. He said some members might have been uncomfortable if those ideas were subjected to outside scrutiny. (CHORE’S COMMENT: Since the public is the ultimate consumer of emergency information, the public deserves a seat at the table. We went so far as to say every government apparatus can benefit from exposure to public opinion, which should not be excluded.)

Cotton defended KSSK’s performance during the October emergency and in the end seemed to rely on the station’s immense popularity for his primary argument. Perry & Price have the highest morning drive time ratings in the nation, he said, so they must be doing something right. (CHORE’S COMMENT: Those ratings are for an entertainment show that features light banter, music and listener participation, most or all of which is inappropriate during an emergency.)

We’ll follow up tomorrow with additional comments from the luncheon, including assertions by a representative of the hearing impaired that reliance on radio doesn’t help his community in a crisis. Thanks for reading.


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