Safety First

Public TV isn't just devoted to British dramas and Sesame Street. It's adding protection to its list of services. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and key public-broadcasting associations are planning a six-month pilot program to investigate the potential use of their digital airwaves in the event of an emergency or terrorist attack.

In short, can the digital spectrum aid TV, radio, cellular phone, and PDA communications?

"The challenge is not the technology but harnessing it, so we can give accurate, timely, and effective alert and warning messages nationwide," says Reynold Hoover, director of the Office of National Security Coordination in the Department of Homeland Security's FEMA.

The deal with FEMA, expected to close later this month, involves the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS, the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS), and WETA Washington, the local station that supplies the spectrum. And it's a welcome respite for FEMA. With congressional prodding, the agency has been inundated with proposals for new emergency communication. "The fact is that there is no one technology that is the perfect solution," says Hoover.

Unlike the project being tested by WNET New York (B&C, May 24), this system would be based on the regular DTV signal, not on the Instructional Television Fixed Signal. Any findings that result could be applied to nearly all DTV broadcasters, provided they supply the spectrum.

APTS President John Lawson says the bonus with public stations is that they already have the requisite spectrum. "This isn't a silver bullet, but it is something that is unique and robust."

His interest in using spectrum for emergency needs predates 9/11. And the stations themselves have initiated talks about potential services.

"It's been a long haul getting the attention of the federal policymakers and have them understand what we're offering," Lawson says. "There is no national communications plan. One is emerging, but I think the government regards this as a local matter."

The problem? Individual stations and emergency organizations repeatedly reinvent the wheel instead of following a national, cohesive plan.

Currently, 54 of APTS's 142 stations have joined its Homeland Security Coalition, paying extra dues and providing an explicit outreach on a national level. "We provide the stations with the resources to be successful at the state and local levels," says Lawson.

Plus, once APTS meets with emergency-services providers and lays out the benefits, they quickly see the importance. The collaboration helps communications in an emergency but also aids in training. Videos can be sent to firehouse or police-station computers in the TV station's market.

"They could have a fixed commitment for bandwidth during the day for training emergency responders on topics like how to respond to pathogens," Lawson says.

The problem, however, is getting government officials to sign on before tragedy strikes.

Steve Bass, CEO and president of WNPT Nashville, Tenn., discussed using datacasting in emergency situations with local officials in 2003. But it wasn't until a fatal nursing-home fire last November that the city realized the benefit. "The firefighters didn't know where the residents were. They said if they had a system that could download blueprints, they could have saved their lives," he says. "I told them our system could do that. All of a sudden, there was a need."

Two months ago, WNPT began a test that Bass hopes will lead to a program that will be funded by government contract rather than appropriations. "We get lumped in with things that are nice, but get cut if there's a financial crunch," he says. "With datacasting, we can develop a set of services that are essential."

The test currently involves sending out video in the Windows Media 9 format to personal computers in the area. Emergency technicians can receive video updates produced by Vanderbilt University without having to suffer through an Internet streaming experience. Bass hopes the project will roll out to more than 250 sites in Tennessee. "It's a way of forging a new compact with the government," he says. "We can provide a valued service that they can support financially."

New Jersey Network has been involved with the State Office of Emergency Management for more than year in a system that involves placing receivers near the Oyster Creek Nuclear Power Plant. Conditional-access technology is used to ensure that transmitted material can be decoded only by those receivers. The basic infrastructure is already in place to provide secure links between the emergency authority and the transmitter.

Or as Hoover says of the overall effort: "The possibilities are endless."