Blackout reveals holes in public communications


POSTED: Tuesday, December 30, 2008

City and state officials are correct in their assessments that communications during the weekend electricity blackout on Oahu were better than in the confusing hours that followed the massive power failure after an earthquake in 2006.

Even so, there is still room for greater improvement not only in providing the public with accurate, reliable information, but in limiting widespread power failures in the first place.

The designated emergency broadcast radio stations, KSSK-AM and its sister FM station, should receive credit for transmitting during the blackout.

However, information that got on the air was frequently incomplete, misleading or contradictory. The on-air staff members were unable to separate crucial duties in an emergency from their usual drive-time, talk-show format.

That's not to say a touch of lightheartedness has no place in such a situation; it can help ease listeners' tensions. But the hosts at times became abusive or mocked callers who sought advice or help for problems the hosts deemed minor under the circumstances.

In one instance a caller who criticized Hawaiian Electric Co. - which shrewdly sent a public relations representative to the station early on - was scorned as someone who probably voted for Democrats.

While such nonsensical remarks can be shrugged off, the primary problem with the broadcast was that the station's staff worked passively. Instead of seeking information from authorities, the station simply waited for them to call in. And when they did call, the staff did not ask astute questions to clarify or expand on the conditions.

It was not until Mayor Mufi Hannemann called to pass on an estimate of “;at least 12 hours”; for power restoration, given to him by HECO officials, that the utility's on-air representative acknowledged the time frame.

After the 2006 quake, Gov. Linda Lingle formed a task force that recommended 15 ways to improve communications, but clearly a person with expertise in emergency procedures and disseminating authoritative information is needed for broadcasts. For example, when someone inquired about possible water supply disruptions, the question was casually dismissed when, in truth, reservoirs could not be refilled without electrical power. As it happened, several communities lost water service as the blackout continued.

Meanwhile, HECO is trying to determine what caused the failure, whether it was a lightning strike or a system breakdown. Whatever the explanation, state public utility officials should be asking HECO about ways to minimize or isolate outages and increase reliability.