April 29, 2016

Newsrooms everywhere had reason to cringe watching the unfolding story Thursday at WBFF-TV in Baltimore where a man wearing a costume walked into the station’s lobby claiming he had a bomb. The station evacuated as police moved in and shot the man. The whole incident comes just two weeks before Hollywood releases the film “Money Monster” in which a gunman storms into a live TV studio and holds the anchor hostage.

Newsrooms nationwide would be smart to use this incident and any possibility that the movie could spark copycats to review their own security plans. And they would be smart to do what a Green Bay, Wisconsin station did recently — practice for an emergency before it lands in their laps.

WFRV-TV cut power to the station during a newscast recently to see if its own backup electricity could keep the station on the air.

“The power has been cut off here not by our choice like once when a guy drove into a power pole and cut electricity off to the station, ” News Director Kevin Osgood told Poynter.

In a weekly meeting with engineers, Osgood said he wondered aloud whether the station could test its ability to carry on even if it lost all electrical power.

“I walk past this huge generator outside the station every day and the fact is I was not sure what it would do for us,” Osgood said.

He wanted to know what power outlets around the station would work. Would producers have access to computer and printers? Would the studio lights and anchor IFBs (the system that anchors use to listen to the air signal and to the producer) be powered up?

So Osgood suggested the station practice a power outage. Not in the dead of night, but in the middle of a newscast, in front of everyone.

“It was Severe Weather Awareness Week so I thought ‘why not?’ We told the audience what we were up to and we streamed the whole thing live on Facebook and on the air.”

“Over the last 18 months, we have tried a couple of breaking news drills. We announced stationwide ‘The Martians have landed’ and we track how much time it takes to get an anchor on the set and get the control room ready. We said over the intercom ‘the sky is falling’ which was code for a weather emergency. We responded just like we would need to in order to get on the air, right up to punching the button to put us on the air. Then we timed everything to see if we were fast enough.”

Osgood said he thought about the need for stations to practice emergency coverage because he started in Huntsville, Alabama, “where you could have 19 tornadoes drop out of the sky in one spring day. We practiced at WHNT, and I saw what it did for us there. It gave the team confidence that we could do what the viewers expected from us when they needed us the most.”

Plus, he said, “I spent four years in the Navy where drills just made us even better at what we already had been trained to do. I figure if it works for the Navy…”

In the middle of a noon newscast, a WFRV engineer threw the switch and the station generator kicked in. The control room kept functioning and while not every light in the studio stayed on, the station kept broadcasting. The newsroom saw that computers and emergency lighting worked.

Osgood said the station learned a valuable lesson from Facebook viewers.

“They asked us to stream any live emergency cut-in on Facebook from now on. I think it is a great idea because in an emergency the viewers might not have electricity or they might be hiding in a shelter or a bathroom without a TV,” he said. “The biggest thing was I think we have squashed any newsroom and control room panic that would happen in a real time situation.”

Osgood said he wishes WFRV’s emergency test wasn’t so unusual in the broadcasting business.

“That is what it all boils down to isn’t it? Getting critical information to people when people need us most. If we are not prepared to do it then, what is the point of what we are doing every day?”

Let’s hear from any of you readers whose newsroom has conducted any kind of emergency training. What did you learn?

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
More by Al Tompkins

More News

Back to News