Wave Goodbye
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Wave goodbye:

HDTV and Emergency Management

Ray J. Vaughan, MS

Last update: Monday January 14, 2008

The next time you wrap up an emergency at your EOC, and you’re in your last press conference, do me a favor. Wave goodbye to your public. This may be the last time they see you for quite a while.


Technology must move forward. And we’re about to take a step forward that’s going to leave Emergency Management a step behind. For the first time in many many years, we’re not going to be able to visually communicate with the public after a disaster. This change is an unexpected side effect of the move toward High Definition TV.

Unless a new Congress slows it down, Television as we know it goes off the air February 17, 2009. But even if there’s a delay, at some point, analog TV goes away. What goes away with it?

No doubt about it, HDTV is impressive. The video resolution is so much better than anything we had in the analog world. But with the rush to sell 65” projection sets and 42” Plasma and LCD sets, the smaller (and less expensive) end was forgotten.

At this point, in November of 2006, there are NO portable HDTVs, no battery operated HDTVs. In fact, many of HDTVs on the market today are technically monitors, not receivers. There is no tuner to receive local HDTV signals in the TV.

Those pushing the rapid demise of Analog TV often mention converter boxes to allow consumers to continue using their Analog TVs after the cut off date. Unfortunately, these converters are also missing from store shelves.

And just because Analog is going away in 27 months doesn’t mean you can’t by an Analog TV today. Yes, they’re still being sold. So right now someone in your community is buying brand new TV that won’t work in just over 2 years.

So, fast forward 27 months. You’re in your press room, giving a briefing. Who’s watching?

The cable TV is likely out. This just killed all the cable boxes that people are using as their HDTV down converter. Those who usually watch local stations on their little satellite dish are still looking to see where it landed. Oh, wait, I know, we’ll hook the old TV antenna to the new HDTV. Good plan, but chances are that if it’s an HD Monitor, there’s no antenna connector. Even if it was, there’s a good chance it was an NTSC (old analog standard) tuner and all it sees today is snow. Since the HD modulation standard over the air is different than cable which is different than satellite, you can’t just connect your antenna to the input of your cable or satellite box.

Let’s say the promised HDTV to analog converters appear on the scene. How many of them will work on batteries? I suspect none. But I hope to be proved wrong. At the very least, it and the HDTV portable will be using more batteries than the old analog $99 portable TV.

How about watching TV in the car? Yes, many cars are coming with DVD screens. A few with analog receivers. I still haven’t seen any with mobile HDTV receivers.

I’m sure you know what part of your population will be the last to get HDTV. The same part that needs the most help and is most likely to have trouble evacuating. Think about the impact of this economic disadvantage.

Another thing that goes away: In many markets, an Analog Channel 6 can be heard on 88.7 on the FM band. When the analog TV station goes dark, 88.7 must also go silent.

What will communicating in this non-visual world be like? Think Radio. Theater of the mind. Consult with classic radio news broadcasters. They have developed the skills to relate the visual in words. You picture the Hindenburg crashing as you hear the famous ‘oh the humanity’ newscast. You’ve seen it hundreds of times. But the people of the day had only that verbal description to go on. Don’t know if it will be effective? Watch the classic movie “War of the Worlds” and see if the public of the time could be motivated by radio. But don’t underestimate the changes you’ll need to make, and your listeners will need to make, to go back to this old medium.

You’ll need to learn to describe things better. Play back some of your air checks from other disasters with your eyes closed. While the radar was on the screen did you say something like ‘as you can see…’ Or more like ‘as the storm approaches from the east’. How will you show jammed evacuation routes verbally? We see bumper to bumper traffic. We hear ‘traffic is moving at less than 5 MPH.’

Even the classic non-verbal cues, like hand gestures are lost in radio. The smile you give when things are under control has to come out in your voice instead.

Always be aware that while you see the facts, the public will imagine something far worse. Fairly describe the damage you’re showing. “The houses we’re showing now have many roof tiles missing but they appear habitable” sounds a lot better than “Just look at the roof damage”.

Also keep in mind what everyone is hearing from other sources. When you monitor local media between press conferences, include the local radio outlets. After 2009, the percentage of those listening to radio will be way up. The radio stations simulcasting TV stations will likely have more confused listeners. They’ve been putting up with the TV guys saying ‘look at this’ for hours. The radio stations with their own reporters will likely have better verbal descriptions and therefore, in theory, may be better partners.

How will you communicate with your hearing impaired citizens? Hope the cellular networks are still up and have barebones text web page they can access with their Sidekick or other text/cellphone devices. This group may have the most to lose with the loss of analog TV.   If you're still thinking TDD, you need to catch up to the current technology to reach them.

If you think this is all happening too fast, I think you’re right. In the 1980’s, in the UK, the BBC shut down an older, outdated TV standard. The last TV made on that standard was sold in 1948. Even with 40 years to upgrade, people still complained and were left without TVs.

Suggestions for the future:

bulletIf you think you can delay the shutdown of Analog TV, go for it. A more understanding Congress may delay it a year, but we know it’s all inevitable. In a shrewd move, the FCC has pitted the TV hungry public up against the heroes of 911, First Responders. Public Safety agencies have been promised the spectrum that will be freed up by the shut down of Analog TV. No one wins here.
bulletPractice and embrace Radio. Even with your press conferences today, someone is listening, not watching the TV. Critique each conference for its verbal content.
bulletWork on a compromise. Get Congress to keep one analog TV station on the air in each market. Maybe let the current owner keep it on, but this may be considered an unfair advantage to one broadcaster. Or turn it over to a local government or educational entity. Where possible, use Channel 6 to take advantage of the 88.7 FM simulcast. With cooperation, every county could have an analog channel 6 for many years. Each major area would take turns activating their local channel 6 so neighboring transmitters wouldn’t interfere with each other.   A single country-wide Channel 6 would only use 6 MHz of valuable spectrum.
bulletHave a network of local government-owned low power analog transmitters, on standby, linked to your EOC. Many building top low power stations may be easier to maintain, and have fewer points of failure than one big station on a tall tower.
bulletStart a campaign to have a backup TV system in the home.   Receiver and antenna.   Battery operated when and if they become available.

More information about HDTV and the future of Analog is available at the FCC's web site:  http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/digitaltv.html

The author of this paper, Ray J. Vaughan, has a Bachelors and Masters degree in Telecommunication Management from Barry University in Miami.   He is also a certified Broadcast and Telecommunication Engineer and holds an FCC General Radio Telephone License.   He works professionally in Telecommunications for a large County Public Safety and Emergency Management Department.  He is also a Communications Specialist (COM-S) in FEMA, Urban Search & Rescue.

This paper is a work in progress. I welcome your feedback, comments and especially your suggestions for the future. Please e-mail me at ray@rayvaughan.com . Let me know if I may add your comments here, and with or without credit to you.  I would like to present this at a conference related to Emergency Management Communication.

Last update: 01/14/2008  Hit Counter

Except for portions owned by others, Copyright: Ray Vaughan, 2008