Derecho hits Washington: Thank goodness for radio!


Gregg SkallNo, it’s not a new killer Spanish format.  A Derecho is a widespread wind storm associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms that can produce destruction similar to a tornado.  We had a big one last Friday.  And it’s an argument for why we need an FM chip in mobile devices and why we need to keep television spectrum for television.

Although it was the weekend before the Fourth of July, I’m hoping that there were some members of Congress, and particularly members of the Commerce Committees, who were still in Washington last weekend to experience the sudden Derecho storm that hit the Greater Washington Area – and much of the Mid-Atlantic and West Virginia.  In fact, the storm apparently started in the Chicago area and slammed the Midwest as well, including Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia, so those who went home to those states may have experienced it as well.  Maybe that experience will sharpen their understanding of the important role that broadcasters play in times of emergency, the utter fruitlessness of expecting one-to-one technologies such as cellular and PCS services to respond with adequate information to those in the hit areas and the need for FM chips in mobile technology.

The storm hit Friday and, in a flash, millions were reported to be in the dark.  Trees came down, a flash torrential rain hit the entire metro and suddenly electricity was gone in most of the DC, Virginia and Maryland area, in the midst of one of the most severe heat waves in recent memory.  Temperatures were over 100 degrees, and with humidity, it felt like at least 110.  Heat records were broken! All three jurisdictions declared states of emergency.  The area power companies estimate that power will likely not be restored to all residents for more than a week.

So, what’s the first thing to do?  Call your power company to find out when they figure power will be restored?  Tried it! Digital telephony now requires external electric power.  The old analog telephone network carried its own current on the twisted copper pair, but the FCC is calculating when it can shut down the old switched telephone system, and most in the DC area have already converted to IP telephony.  Short story: home telephones were down in about 10 minutes.

Of course, some no longer even have a land line, so they and those who couldn’t use their land lines, all try the cellular system.  No luck!!  At least for me, on the AT&T network, plenty of bars, but on the line — either dead silence, or a delayed beep . . . beep . . . beep.  In other words, no connection.  Guess that system was overloaded; guess it was never designed to fulfill that kind of need.

Searching the Internet on my mobile proved no better.

So where did I finally get real emergency storm information; real answer for storm and power restoration information?  Good old reliable radio!

Anyone with a battery or hand generator portable radio could quickly find out the latest information by tuning WTOP.  Within minutes and on a minute by minute basis I could get the latest storm information, including heat advisories, where to go for a “cooling room,” which supermarkets had ice and how to care for the food in your refrigerator.  Those with home generators could get good information in the area television stations, or you could go to the few areas where power had been restored to tune in from hotels rooms or restaurants that had power.

The experience can’t help but make you wonder why our policy makers seem so hell-bent to classify broadcasting as an obsolete technology?  Why can’t they see the wisdom of an FM chip on mobile devices?  Why are they in such a rush to trade television spectrum in for expanding the spectrum resources of the major wireless carriers, neither of which were of much, if any, help during the emergency stages of the Derecho?

My only regret was that only a few local radio stations responded like WTOP.  A scan of the dial revealed that most did little to cut into their normal playlist for emergency information.  How do they justify programming in the public interest, convenience and necessity?  But overall, kudos to the broadcasters that did step up to the plate, provided essential and life-saving information well into the weekend and beyond to keep local residents informed and armed with the information they could not get any other way.

Perhaps good public policy would be to encourage the adoption of FM chips on mobile and assuring that television broadcasters will continue to have sufficient spectrum so that in an emergency they can continue to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity!