TV stations' broadcast of alerts is voluntary
There have been many flash-flood warnings recently due to the heavy rains. I understand the value in these warnings being broadcast on television but it is very annoying when programs are interrupted at critical junctures. At least one local station allows the program audio to continue after sounding the initial beep or buzzer followed by the warning details scrolling across the screen. Others cut the program audio and replace it with a voice reading the announcement while it is scrolling across the screen. Can you find out why all stations don't use the first method? I also think the warning should be shown at the top rather than the bottom of the screen where subtitles are normally shown.
Answer: It may surprise you that there is nothing requiring broadcasters from airing such emergency warnings, except in the case of a presidential "activation."
"Anything lower than a presidential activation is done on a strictly voluntary basis by the broadcaster," explained George Burnett, chief of telecommunications for Hawaii State Civil Defense.
You could watch your favorite TV show uninterrupted, with no inkling of a possible emergency situation, if a station decided not to air an alert.
But Civil Defense officials appreciate the fact that, in Hawaii, at least, all the major TV and radio stations do broadcast alerts sent out by the National Weather Service or Civil Defense agencies -- especially when you consider the number of emergency alerts sent out by the National Weather Service in Honolulu within a span of six weeks.
From Feb. 19 through March 30 -- not even counting Friday's torrential downpours, the National Weather Service issued three severe thunderstorm watches, nine severe thunderstorm warnings, one tornado warning, 64 special marine warnings, 101 flash flood warnings, and three winter storm warnings for summits on the Big Island, said Nezette Rydell, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Honolulu.
During that period, a flash-flood watch has been in effect much of the time, she said.
When it comes to how the alerts are relayed to viewers, you should voice your preferences to the individual stations. We talked to one general manager whose station opts for no audio, and another whose two stations offer both audio and visual messages for every alert.
While the state can't mandate any TV or radio station to broadcast an alert, or have a say in how that alert is relayed, "basically all the broadcasters participate in" the state Emergency Alert System plan, developed by state Civil Defense, "to one extent or another," Burnett said.
The most desirable way, in his agency's view, is for a broadcaster to just take the "crawl (message) and the audio clip that goes along with each message (sent out in an emergency) and play those over the air," he said. "But, not all the broadcasters, especially the TV stations, like to do that."
Some stations like to reword the message and have it voiced by one of their staff; some like to put in a "customized crawl based on the event that's occurring," Burnett said.
But "the fact that they're helping us get the public's attention (in any way) meets our desire to inform of the public of some urgent event that's ongoing," he said.
Burnett also pointed out it's up to a station to decide when to relay a message. Of course, a lot depends on the urgency of a situation. Burnett gave the example of a flood watch versus a flood warning.
"A flood watch just means there is potential for a problem; the warning means the problem is here and is ongoing," he said. "Generally, we tell them (broadcasters), we'd like you to put the warning on as soon as possible, the watch -- handle it as you get time to handle it. In each case, it's their determination on how they're going to handle it."
Burnett also said that whatever warning is sent out is "a one-time shot." If it's a "duration event" -- something that goes on for a while, such as the current series of rain, then the originating source, either the National Weather Service or state Civil Defense, will have to "reinitiate the emergency alert notification" each time a new crisis arises.
"It's not something that we automatically expect (broadcasters) to repeat," he said.
At KITV, the station doesn't run an audio message, opting just to run a "crawl" at the top of the screen, said Mike Rosenberg, president and general manager. That way, it "makes people aware (of the possible emergency), but is little bit less intrusive," he said.
He noted that cable stations have "no manual override," where someone is available to change an incoming emergency alert.
But at KITV, when an emergency notification message is received, a master control operator is available to make a decision, "based on his best judgment," as to when to run the message, Rosenberg said.
"We will always run (an alert) within a few minutes of getting it," but such factors as to what program is airing and what is happening are taken into consideration, he said.
Rosenberg noted, however, that the station did receive a lot of heat recently when it broke into the popular "Lost" show with a weather warning.
At sister TV stations KHNL and KFVE, both audio and "crawl" messages will air when an emergency alert comes in, said John Fink, vice president and general manager.
What constitutes an emergency is "somewhat debatable," he acknowledged.
"But, we err on the side of trying to give as much information as possible on both an audio and visual level," when it comes to providing a warning, he said.
Although such interruptions might be annoying, Fink said viewers need to "deal with the realities. We're trying to protect the community first and we'll get back to programming as soon as appropriate."
He also explained that there are two types of emergency interruptions: when the station cuts in with its own report and when an alert comes in through the official Emergency Alert System. If it's the latter, then "it's an automatic pass-through that runs along the bottom third of your screen," he said.
Burnett credited local broadcasters for being responsive.
"We've got to recognize that we're asking the broadcasters to do a lot and that it affects their bottom line every time we push the button," he said. "They are keeping the public's interest in mind by supporting the (emergency alert) program."
Ray Lovell, spokesman for and the voice of the state Civil Defense system, hoped that TV viewers don't get too upset when their programs are interrupted by a message.
"At that point, the potential exists for someone's health and safety, and possibly life, to be in danger somewhere ... So we ask everybody's indulgence (in) and understanding" of "a system where we're all kind of holding hands."
To all my fellow bus riders. When the bus driver is nice enough to wait for you, as you run to the bus stop, please say "thank you" when boarding. I'm sure your parents taught you manners. -- L.P./Aiea
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