Howard officials tuning in to AM radio

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Howard County's emergency management officials are turning to a time-tested technology to help provide critical information in case of disaster: AM radio.

Officials are developing specifications for an AM radio station that would broadcast emergency information throughout the county -- a first-of-its-kind system in Maryland.

Faced with the potential for natural disasters or terrorist acts in the post-Sept. 11 world, many communities are seeking ways to get lifesaving information to residents. A few hundred localities across the country have installed AM radio stations for emergency notification purposes in recent years, often tapping federal homeland security grants for funding.

Steve Watts, deputy director of the county's Office of Emergency Management and a battalion chief in the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services, said the threat of domestic terrorism and growth in the county are driving the need for new techniques to reach the public.

"We're building in farther areas," said Watts. "People used to be centered in areas that could hear sirens, but as we grow throughout the county, we're trying to find new ways to inform the public."

The radio project would cost about $190,000 -- funded through federal homeland security grants -- and would not involve building radio towers. Antennas would be placed on top of structures throughout the county, possibly even on utility poles, said Victoria Goodman, a county government spokeswoman.

"We're definitely seeing more interest at the local government level for this" type of equipment, said Steve Davis, head of Columbia-based All Hands Consulting, which provides emergency management and homeland security consulting. "After 9/11, there was a big uptick in emergency notification systems."

Goodman said the station would be run by emergency management officials out of the county's emergency operations center at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

She said the county retained a consulting firm, Columbia Telecommunications Corp., to help develop system specifications, obtain a broadcast license through the Federal Communications Commission and generate a request for proposals on which vendors could bid. Watts said the goal is to install the station by the end of this year or early 2006.

The station would broadcast a continuous loop so that residents can get accustomed to tuning to the station for public information, such as road closures or driving conditions throughout the county, Goodman said.

Lt. Ryan Miller, a Howard fire department official helping to manage the AM radio project, said the system would have backup features and be technologically flexible. For instance, the radio message could be accessed and changed remotely -- via telephone -- by an emergency management official.

"We want this to be the last possible system to go down," Miller said. "We want the public to rely on this."

Kenneth B. Allen, executive director of the Partnership For Public Warning in McLean, Va., a nonprofit association focused on emergency management issues, said that communities need to be able to disseminate warnings through more than one medium.

"One of the advantages of localized, area-specific stations is that if you know it exists, you can tune in and get the information more quickly," Allen said.

But Allen also warned of some pitfalls in the new technologies.

"Technology is the easy part of all this," Allen said. "The hard part is putting in place the policies to make sure the right officials know how to use the system, to make sure the information is specific and accurate. ... We've seen examples of counties who have had the technology but forgot to send out the warning or didn't know who would send it out."

John W. Droneburg III, director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said that the state and local jurisdictions use AM radio stations mainly for providing traffic advisory information along major travel routes. But using AM stations for emergency notification is nothing new -- such stations were regularly used during the Cold War era in the 1950s and 1960s, he said.

"It is relatively unique now ... for a county to use it strictly for emergency notification purposes," he said.

The AM radio station project is supported by County Executive James N. Robey, who mentioned it briefly in his state of the county speech Jan. 13.

In fiscal 2001, Howard received $103,000 in federal homeland security funds, but that amount has nearly doubled every year. In fiscal 2004, which ends in July, the county expects to receive more than $1 million in homeland security grants, according to county figures.

The AM station would dovetail with a more elaborate technology known as a community callback system -- a $161,000 initiative that also was funded through homeland security grants. The phone-based technology can dial thousands of residents an hour and deliver a recorded message. Next month, officials expect to begin testing the system.

Goodman and Watts said that the two systems -- AM radio and community callback -- could be used together: A short phone message could be sent out to residents instructing them to tune to the station for critical information.

"The one piece that we want everyone to hear is, you got to have a battery-powered radio or a car radio" for use in emergencies when the power goes out, Goodman said. "You have to have that."

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