By Howard B. Price
NEW YORK — The broadcast industry was shaken this week by the deaths of a WYFF-TV, Greenville, SC news crew, crushed when a tree fell on their SUV while they were covering the effects of Subtropical Storm Alberto. Rescuers found anchor/reporter Mike McCormick and videographer Aaron Smeltzer Monday afternoon — in their vehicle, its engine running, and its transmission in drive. According to The New York Times, the WYFF team had been driving on a North Carolina road that had been reopened just a week ago, after mud and debris had been removed following earlier floods.
News managers have two key daily missions: Aggressively, accurately and fairly enterprise news coverage that matters to their audience…and then bring their troops home safely at the end of the day. Whenever a crew is dispatched, reporters or producers are sent into harm’s way, or a when a helicopter or drone is launched – the silent prayer whispered back in the newsroom is: “Please, God, bring them back.”
There is no question that Monday’s accident was an act of God, a terrible happenstance – and it’s entirely possible that no one could have foreseen the danger until it was too late. But each day, our street teams, our air personalities, our engineers and news personnel go into potentially dangerous environments and unfamiliar circumstances, and there are common-sense things we can do to improve their odds of coming home safely at the end of the day.
TEACH & PRACTICE SITUATIONAL AWARENESS. Know the environment around you. If weather is severe, don’t park or stand under or near large trees. If you hear thunder, even if you see no lightning, curtail the use of transmission equipment, lower antennae, and seek sturdy shelter in a building or, if no structure is at hand, even in your car. In high winds, try to shelter your vehicles behind sturdy buildings that block the strongest gusts. In snow storms, make sure the exhaust of your vehicle is kept clear of snow and ice to prevent a buildup of carbon monoxide inside your fleet. Crack a window open to keep fresh air flowing. Don’t run the accessories without the engine on, lest you run down your battery and find yourself stranded in the middle of nowhere, with no way to call for help. When covering civil unrest, don’t fight or become part of the crowd. Cover from the periphery, and always have an escape route planned. Look around for doorways, stores and building vestibules in which you can take quick refuge.
BRING THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT. Approved hard hats, bump caps and footwear are essentials when walking through debris fields. Impact-resistant goggles and work gloves are must haves, as well. Reflective vests are mandatory when working near traffic at night. LED flashlights not only make important emergency resources, but also great promotional items your listeners will keep and use – so consider those an investment in both safety AND marketing. First aid kits need to be in every station vehicle, at your studios, bureaus and your engineering sites.
STAY IN TOUCH. So many broadcasters who fight to the death to protect their RF don’t use RF any more when it comes to their own internal communications. Does your station maintain its own two-way radio system; if not, WHY not? When the cell system fails, your radios will still work, providing not only a channel for live field reporting, but also a lifeline for maintaining contact with your personnel. Have a check-in plan so that the location of your people can be tracked, and help dispatched if they don’t check in according to a pre-determined schedule.
SAFETY TRAINING. At minimum, all personnel should be trained in First Aid/CPR and in the use of AEDs – automated external defibrillators. Those who might be dispatched to cover civil unrest should also take a HEFAT course (Hostile Environments/First Aid Training). HEFAT courses are not inexpensive – but can reduce your insurance liability and protect your staff if they are sent into war zones, riots, etc. The major networks – and more than a few larger local stations — generally mandate this training for any of their reporters, producers or crews who go overseas, or who are sent to cover domestic civil disturbances.
EXERCISE YOUR PROTOCOLS. Don’t wait to test the capabilities and knowledge of your team in a real-world emergency. Once a quarter, convene your personnel to run through typical scenarios likely in your service area to test their ability to respond quickly and effectively.
Finally, make sure everyone on your team – from the most senior executive to the newest entry-level employee – understands that SAFETY supersedes ANY other operational priority. There are many ways to cover emergent events WITHOUT placing lives or property at risk. Teach these techniques – practice them – and resource your people so they can successfully implement them.
You’ll protect them. AND you’ll protect your brand, too.
Howard B. Price, CBCP/MBCI is the former director of business continuity & crisis management for ABC’s News and Technology & Operations divisions, and has also served as senior manager, enterprise business continuity planning for The Walt Disney Company. A certified business continuity professional, and the founder of MediaDisasterPrep.com, he brings cost-effective resilience planning, innovation and thought leadership to the media industry. Reach him at HowardBPrice@gmail.com or 917-414-1751, and follow him on Twitter @mediadisaster.