The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Wolfgang Kurtz
LOG Editor 

Emergency alerts hit or miss

 


For Seward, getting the word out in a hurry is a problematic proposition. With two newspapers, a popular bulletin board and several facebook blogs, the fourth estate and it’s diminutive offshoots are well covered. However, the only full participant in the more immediate form of media – television – is the GCI cable system which makes it house-bound. The television and radio signals presently available in the area are not meaningful participants in local communications.

Most Alaskan communities have full participation by local radio and television broadcasters in the FCC mandated Emergency Alert System (EAS). The EAS took over from the old Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) in 1997, but awareness of the change is still percolating through those who remember the “good old days” of the Cold War, and black and white test patterns on the television after midnight.

Now, EAS tests themselves appear more background, confined to odd hours or crawls on the bottom of the screen with little accompanying fanfare. And in Seward, the alerts seen or heard often do not apply to the community because they issue from other areas of the region. That is because there are, at this time, no local originators of emergency information over the broadcast airwaves in Seward with the exception of the local NOAA Weather Radio channel.

Presently, the only way to immediately address the public in the area is through the City of Seward’s Tsunami Alert System by means of siren and loudspeaker. Obviously, this has limited reach. City or Borough emergency responders can use a reverse notification system to prompt NOAA to issue a specific EAS alert which will end up going out over the local cable system and Kenai Peninsula radio stations as well as the NOAA weather channels.

However, there is presently no consistent way to follow this alert up with specific information or tailor the address to local needs. According to an online source, Kenai Peninsula Emergency Management has contact information to get information broadcast via local radio translators operated from Homer and Arizona.

However, according to Eddie Athey, Seward Fire Department’s Assistant Chief, this process has never been tested or used and has apparently fallen out of favor with the departure of Eric Mohrmann from the borough’s emergency management office. Athey asserts that local control and origination is preferable in any case.

Radio and television translators operators are not mandated to participate in the EAS system. Therefore, they don’t have to install or operate EAS equipment, which under FCC auspices is a fundamental component of community service. Originally this apparent oversight was a non-issue as FCC rules in most cases prevented translators from operating outside of the general area of their originating station.

By way of explanation, radio and television translators receive a “real” station and rebroadcast the programming at low power. The originating station operates under the full requirements of FCC regulations for public service and the translator is just a repeater of that station. Over time, loopholes and lax enforcement have allowed translators to creep further and further away, diluting that distinction. Further complicating the situation are changes to FCC regulations that now allow translators to broadcast up to 30 seconds per hour of promotional programming. Some operators have taken that space intended for public announcements and generating local support for a translator and used it for commercial advertising.

Although Seward has a history of community broadcasting, there’s been a considerable period of interruption in that tradition. However, the area is on the brink of having what other communities take for granted. Local radio stations will provide a missing link in Seward’s present emergency alert predicament. However, the overall effectiveness of those outlets will still be limited by the number of other signals available in the area. Without radio and television translator participation in the local EAS system, the community will remain at some risk of being unaware or misinformed.

Wolfgang Kurtz has been involved in broadcasting and is currently involved in a local community radio initiative.

 

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