By Howard B. Price
ABC Television Network
Director, Business Continuity
This time it’s Baltimore — a city long polarized by economic disparities, troubled schools and strained relations between law enforcement and its citizens.
Civil unrest has rocked several neighborhoods, resulting in injury and destruction. The numbers tell the story: nearly 250 arrests as of this writing, almost 150 vehicles set on fire, numerous buildings looted and burned, nearly two dozen police officers hurt.
Also hurt, according to Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute, at least nine journalists, who were just trying to objectively report what was going on. Some got caught in the pincer movements of angry mobs and police. Some were blindsided by rampaging thugs.
Covering street violence is NOT a job for amateurs or newbies. And if your radio station is suddenly thrust into the position of having to cover it, you need to have a plan that protects your people and your assets – while allowing your personnel to protect the public’s right to know.
First and foremost, you need to enroll your news staff – and anyone on your staff who might be drafted to assist them – in “hostile environments” training. In essence, this is a multi-day course, offered by a number of security providers, which simulates what it would be like to cover the news under dangerous circumstances. These courses are not inexpensive – but they can be lifesavers for reporters, producers and crews who find themselves in unfriendly circumstances.
The best of these courses teaches journalists how to do their job while always maintaining heightened situational awareness, and devising a “plan B” to allow for a quick and safe exit when necessary. Participants also learn basic first aid in many such courses, and become familiar with several types of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as respirators and ballistic vests.
The use of PPE often requires “fit testing.” This is especially true for ballistic gear and respirators. If these items are not fit-tested for the user to whom they are deployed, they won’t protect that user adequately from projectiles, gunfire or airborne crowd controls like pepper spray and tear gas.
But beyond the hardware, and improved personal risk assessment, your station needs to have in place policies and procedures that guide the whole of your coverage. What do you carry live, and what on delay? How close to the danger zone do you send your people? What’s your plan for news breaking in multiple locations at the same time? How do you moderate and curate social media? When do you break format and go with continuous coverage? When do you assign multi-person teams, and engage professional security to protect them in the field? Do you have 24-hour reach information for all of your community’s key contacts? Perhaps most important: How do you put what you are seeing into context?
And this: What if YOUR facility is under siege?
When events such as those unfolding in Baltimore occur, it is too late to plan. Even if you are not an all-news or news/talk station, you need a plan for gathering and broadcasting comprehensive, timely and reliable well-sourced information in a time of crisis – and on multiple platforms.
Whether it’s a natural disaster, man-made emergency or explosive public outrage, your listeners will be relying on you to deliver information and guidance they can trust. Will you be ready?
Howard B. Price, CBCP/MBCI is director, business continuity for ABC Television Network. He can be emailed at Howard.B.Price@abc.com or phoned at 212-456-1073.