As most of you may know, I live in New York State (Hudson Valley region). This is very close to the COVID-19 outbreak in Westchester County. There has been one confirmed case in my town. As such, we are experiencing the outbreak ahead of the curve from the rest of the country. School has been canceled for at least two weeks and perhaps indefinitely. All public gathering places are closed; restaurants, bars, movie theaters, malls, churches, etc. As a radio engineer, the COVID-19 virus has several implications:
Things are still going to break and will need attention. The good news is that most transmitter sites are unmanned. The only social interaction may be during the travel phase (getting fuel, food, etc).
Many studios and offices are being abandoned as well. Over the last few days, we have set up DJs to operate from their houses. Most sales and office staff have been told to work from home.
Broadcasters have been designated critical communications infrastructure, and The Department of Homeland Security has issued letters that allow travel and procurement of fuel during the national emergency for critical personnel.
I managed, prior to the store shelves being emptied this weekend, to procure some PPE. I don’t know how effective it will be, but anything is better than nothing.
Since Hurricane Sandy, I have had in place many emergency supplies and equipment needed to restore service in the event of a long-term interruption of basic services.
There are many long-term economic implications. For commercial radio stations, the loss of income is going to be extreme. As the virus has spread, businesses have canceled pretty much all advertising. During past disasters, radio was often the only means of getting information to the general population. I am not sure if this is still the case. How relevant is radio these days?
The big lesson learned from Sandy is to take nothing for granted. For several days prior to the storm’s arrival, we checked everything; refueled and started every generator, checked the oil, water, and battery electrolyte, set up fuel deliveries ahead of time for the worst-case scenario, checked all the backup transmitters and STL’s, and so on. The one thing that I didn’t consider was a storm surge so high that the propane tank would float away. After all, those tanks are heavy.
However, a brief examination of elementary physics reveals that even when full, a propane tank will float:
One gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds if it is freshwater or approximately 8.55 pounds for saltwater (depending on where it is from).
One gallon of liquid propane weighs approximately 4.1 pounds, thus it is about half as dense as water.
Most propane tanks are not full, being at most 80% liquid volume. It is always the thing that you didn’t think of.
We seem to be suffering a 500-year storm about once a year or so around these parts. I expect that things will only get worse. With that in mind, it is perhaps time to re-think our disaster preparedness and recovery plans to incorporate every worst-case scenario we can imagine. Everyone knows, but it bears repeating: Radio is the last link that people have when all other technology fails. Thus, when it comes to storm preparation, there is no such thing as too much. Thus:
Take nothing for granted
Our assumptions about power utility and telephone network reliability and restoration may be wrong. Our assumptions about access to remote sites, our ability to use vehicles, availability of gasoline and other fuels may be over-optimistic. Our assumptions that basic foodstuffs, clean water, and secure resting areas may also be wrong. Get those items wrong and it does not matter how much equipment redundancy is built into facilities.
For remote transmitter sites, access can be a major problem after a storm. In low-lying coastal areas, flooding will be an issue. In those situations, having backup transmitter sites would be a key feature of any disaster plan.
All good disaster plans also have the human component; clean water, food, and safe, secure resting areas for the staff. As always, when the SHTF and there are no options and no ideas, there is the Bear Grylls survival method:
Which we really, really don’t want to do (from the TV showMan vs. Wild on Discovery).
Last night, I went to bed and all was well with the world. This morning, I woke up and, Hey Now! It would seem there is trouble brewing out in the ocean. The weather people are talking of some superstorm, a combination of a category two hurricane and a winter blizzard with a tsunami and a bit of dust bowl thrown in for good measure. Okay, I made up the dust bowl part.
Here is the five-day forecast:
It looks like the Mid-Atlantic coast is in for a direct hit, but the probabilities include coastal NY, NJ, and CT. Thus, storm preparation has begun. Today’s list is as follows:
Check All backup generators, and refuel as needed. Check oil, water, battery water, etc. Make sure the generator starts from the remote command.
Check all backup transmitters, where installed.
Check other backup systems, such as STLs, sump pumps, etc.
Make sure that buildings are secure and any loose items are secured.
Perhaps this storm will be one of those over-hyped non-events. Only time will tell, however. If it continues on its present course, then personal preparation will consist of:
Procuring a good flashlight with fresh batteries for the tool kit (perhaps several).
Taking care of household needs for the storm.
Full set of mechanical tools.
Some extra food and water in the work truck.
A change of dry clothes in the work truck, including shoes or boots.
Sleeping bag in the work truck.
Better to be prepared than to sit in wet clothes wishing it wasn’t so. More updates to follow.
Saturday, 8 am Update:
During Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene, it was the rainfall that did the most damage. Looking at the current rainfall predictions, it appears the worst of it will be to the south by a good bit:
These things can change as the storm progresses, continuing with preparations.
Update, Sunday afternoon, 3pm:
The storm is still progressing more or less along the forecast track. Further to the south and in coastal areas, there is a strong possibility of flooding. Around this area and north, it looks like it will be a mostly wind event, with only 3-4 inches of rain predicted. Preparations are being finalized, I have added the chain saw to the truck inventory.
Alternate title: “I love Stupidity,” somebody else’s, usually not my own. It’s a bit hard to reconcile the NAB’s desire for translators against the need and strong community support for local radio. The original intent of translators was to fill in coverage areas of existing FM licenses within the parent stations’ protected contour. Very few translators are actually used for that purpose today. They have, instead, morphed into vast over-the-air relay networks for NPR and religious stations or are relaying programming of HD-2 channels that would otherwise not be heard. Why we would need more of that, I don’t know.
The unfortunate part of all that stupidity is the side effects. Think of the stupid driver who cuts off a tractor-trailer on the interstate and causes a big pile-up. There are potential injuries to those involved in the accident but also the inconvenience to all those stuck in miles of backed-up traffic. That is a fairly minor occurrence.
With big corporate government, the size and scale of stupidity can reach epic proportions. To wit: During the natural disasters that overtook the northeast, indeed other areas of the country as well, local radio was proven to be a reliable, sometimes life-saving means of communication time and time again. Yet, in spite of all that, the NAB seems to think that LPFM stations (community radio) should be second to cross-band translators broadcasting AM stations and HD-2 channels. Regarding FM translators on AM stations, the NAB says:
NAB first commends and supports the Commission’s proposal to eliminate the restriction on the use of FM translators by AM stations to translators that were authorized as of May 1, 2009. FM translators enable AM stations to overcome inherent technical disadvantages that limit audio quality compared to other services, thus limiting their service to the public and even threatening their economic viability.
Oh where to begin? First of all, AM stations do not have inherent technical disadvantages, that is a myth. Off-the-shelf AM receivers are of inferior quality and make a well-designed, well-executed AM station sound like a telephone. If one were to listen to an older AM radio or AM on a receiver with variable bandwidth IF, one would find that it can sound quite good, if not very good. The problem is that the receiver manufacturers never carried through with the promise to open up the bandwidth following the implementation of NRSC-2 in 1991. One should wonder why.
Second, there are many AM stations out there that are economically viable. Those stations have local programming and serve the community of license and have not been neglected or turned into an automated syndicated radio repeater. Now, could a class C or class D AM station benefit from a translator at night, sure? That may not be a bad distinction to draw, especially for those class D stations with no nighttime operating authority.
Regarding more translators in general, it is difficult to imagine what all those new signals will be used for, other than more of the same (relaying distant, out-of-market religious stations, NPR stations, or HD-2 programming which nobody cares about). The FM band is already full of such things and could actually use less, not more.
While unfortunate, the NAB’s position is not surprising. They do the bidding of their dues-paying members, after all. The anti-competition we are a monopoly stance of the NAB members is not new either. Remember the required economic impact study required by the LCRA on the LPFM vs full power commercial FM stations. To think that a 100-watt LPFM could significantly impact the business of a class A, B or C FM station is laughable. Yet, it was a requirement stuck into the bill at the behest of the NAB.
It is up to the broadband-minded FCC to see how to slice the remaining FM spectrum up and whether the corporatist NAB’s argument holds water or the rising call of the people who want a return of local radio and local community service will be heard.
This is a video of what happened during Tropical Storm Irene in Ulster County, where I live:
We are truly fortunate that no one here was killed. In the mean time, the waters around here are still receding, we had some additional flooding Wednesday (9/7) with another 6 inches of rain from Tropical Storm Lee with flood warnings still in effect for several local creeks.
In my neck of the woods, we have nine radio stations licensed within about a 16 mile radius. One is religious, one is a college station, the other is a classical music format programmed from Albany, 90 miles away, one is a LPFM run by a local high school and two are commercial AM or FM station. The commercial stations used to be located in downtown Ellenville but moved to Poughkeepsie, about 30 miles away in 1999. The religious, college, and classical stations are small and have no backup systems or interest in emergency programming. That leaves the high school LPFM, WELV-LP.
In the height of the storm, 11.53 inches of rain had fallen in the previous 8 hours, the power was out, cable was out, the internet unavailable, the Verizon telephone company office in town was almost underwater, we had two sources of local Ulster county information; WDST (100.1 MHz, class A) in Woodstock and WELV-LP in Ellenville. WDST studios are located in Bearsville, which is about 25 miles north of here. They are a locally owned, locally programmed station with a good record of community support. They did a good job updating emergency information, flooded roadways, emergency shelter information, power restoration information, dry ice, alternate emergency numbers in case 911 went out, rallying points for local fire departments, etc. Ellenville Central School district’s WELV-LP also did a good job, although much more confined to the local area around Ellenville and have a much smaller coverage area. Still, they were live on the air with up to date information. Thankfully.