When Your Station IS the News

| May 2, 2016

By Howard B. Price
ABC Television Network
Director, Business Continuity

 

pricehowardbwriterNEW YORK — It’s been an interesting couple of years for TV stations in Baltimore – to say the least.

About two years ago, a deranged man hijacked a landscaping truck and drove it through the front lobby of WMAR-TV, disrupting station operations for hours before being apprehended by authorities.

And Thursday, an emotionally disturbed man in an animal costume, and claiming to have a bomb, set fire to his car and forced the evacuation of WBFF-TV and WNUV-TV.  The intruder, who later walked out of the building shadowed by SWAT officers, was shot three times after refusing their repeated orders to take his hands out of his pockets and lay down on the ground.  He is expected to survive following treatment at a local hospital, and will face arson, reckless endangerment and other charges.

The “bomb” he allegedly claimed to have been wearing turned out to be a floatation vest, to which were attached chocolate bars wrapped in foil, with wires running from them.  The fire he allegedly set in his car in the station’s parking lot was extinguished by firefighters, preventing a likely explosion.

Authorities say Alex Brizzi, of nearby Howard County, Maryland wanted Fox45 News to broadcast material he’d brought with him on a flash drive – which Fox45 reported to be “video rants…talking about the end of the world.”

As the investigation into the incident continues, some critically important lessons have already emerged for broadcasters, whose facilities continue to be “soft targets” for people with axes to grind and manifestos to deliver: Harden security, have a response plan to protect your people and your assets — and a business continuity plan to assure your critical operations continue despite disruptions.

The Fox45 incident began at about 1:15 pm ET – as the station was preparing its 4:00 pm newscast.  A quick-thinking security officer kept Brizzi occupied in the secured vestibule of the lobby, while discretely calling 911 to summon police and firefighters. The isolated vestibule assured that the intruder would not be able to gain rapid access to the rest of the building.  And that allowed the security officer in the lobby to signal other employees to evacuate out other exits of the building.

Sinclair Broadcasting, based in nearby Hunt Valley, owns Fox45 and WNUV, and had trained the station’s workforce to respond to emergencies like this.  Those plans paid off, with a calm, competent response in which no station employees were hurt, and no station assets were damaged.  Sinclair officials said in a TV interview following the apprehension of the intruder that they’d review the incident to see what else they can do to enhance security at their 166 TV stations, four radio stations and multicast network operations across the country.

Operationally, the event was disruptive. Evacuating employees grabbed what gear they could, and took to social media to report the story as local competitors, and WBFF’s Sinclair stablemate in Washington, DC, WJLA-TV, helped sustain WBFF’s on-air operations. The station is located at the foot of TV Hill, also home to WJZ-TV and WBAL-TV.

So what are the takeaways from events like this?

  • Secure your parking lot. Parking lots should be gated and fenced, with access granted only by keycard or verification of staff and guests via CCTV and intercoms.
  • Secure your lobby. Create an “interlock” by isolating your entrances from the rest of the building. Have security personnel and the inner lobby protected behind ballistic glass, door interlocks controlled by keycards and intercom- or phone-linked CCTV verification.
  • Secure your sensitive operating areas. Consider adding access control to all your internal stairwells, and perhaps even your elevators, to make it more difficult for an intruder who DOES get past a secured lobby to penetrate and possibly take control of your operating areas.
  • Have an emergency notification system. Consider acquiring a mobile app to send “push alerts” to the smartphones of your employees, and systems that can send text, e-mail and voice messages quickly and simultaneously to a database of contact points for your employees.
  • Build a facility safety team. Many companies already have fire safety teams which are often mandated by local fire codes – but consider expanding this concept to use these highly motivated and trained volunteers for “all-hazards” response. Provide them with two-way radios, first aid kits and training – and make them readily identifiable to other employees and first responders.
  • Write an emergency action plan AND a business continuity plan. Document what to do, where to go and whom to notify in the event of an emergency. Don’t plan for scenarios – plan for impacts: Loss of people, loss of plant, loss of production capability within your plant, loss of cash flow, loss of reputation and loss of supply chain and other third-party impacts. Train for “hostile presence,” specifically. Know where your internal areas of safe refuge and your external reunion areas will be in the event of an in-building relocation or evacuation; have backups for all of these locations. And have a means for accounting for the whereabouts and conditions of your people. After you’ve responded to the instant emergency, have a documented plan for restoring your critical business operations as soon as possible. And before any incident, forge relationships with local first responders that will be critical at time of event. Supply them with floor plans of your facility, and cellphone numbers of key managers, to help them plan an effective response in advance of any emergency.
  • Resource your business continuity plan. Work with co-owned partners – and with competitors – to minimize time off the air. Think about collaborating on a backup studio, and ways to route external sources like a backup broadcast facility, remote truck or cellular newsgathering system directly to your transmitter and live stream. Be able to maintain your website and update your social media presence elsewhere. Make sure you’ve got the means for sustaining critical administrative operations, communicating with your employees and clients, calming loved ones, providing for the health and welfare of your workforce.
  • EXERCISE YOUR PLANS. This is THE most critical aspect of emergency planning. There’s an old saying in both emergency management and business continuity that people don’t read “big red books” BEFORE an event, don’t have time to read them DURING an event, and consider them paperweights AFTER an event. DON’T WRITE BIG RED BOOKS. Develop “checklists” and contacts for each of your key operations, then digitize them for access on smartphones and laptops; keep them in a cloud-based file for rapid access anywhere, anytime. Then, when things are quiet, rehearse them.

It’s been said before – and bears repeating: Failure to plan is planning to fail. Use events like those which took place Thursday in Baltimore to prepare your people and your facility for the successful resolution of any untoward event. Comprehensive, well-resourced and well-rehearsed emergency planning not only assures your continued ability to operate in times of crisis, but more importantly, shows your staff and clients how much you care.

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Howard B. Price, CBCP/MBCI is director, business continuity for the ABC Television Network.  The opinions expressed in his articles are his alone, and are not necessarily those of his employer.  He can be emailed at Howard.B.Price@abc.com or phoned at 212-456-1073.

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Category: Advice