10/30/2009 7:58 AM
We received numerous responses to a column by TV
Technology Senior Editor Deborah McAdams in the Sept. 23 issue regarding
L.A.-area broadcasters’ coverage of the Station Fire in early September. One
reader, Hans Laetz, a former L.A.
area broadcaster, had his own perspective on the coverage, which we decided to
run here in full:
In the Sept.
23 issue of TV Technology Deborah McAdams wrote that the recent Station Fire
narrowly missed burning Los Angeles TV towers at Mount Wilson, and that if the towers were
lost, potentially 1.7 million people would have been without access to
this is not correct. Whether Mount Wilson
burned or not, every one of the 5.7 million TV households in Los Angeles was completely without access to
emergency information via TV during that fire’s critical stages. This was true
whether they used mountaintop signals or cable/satellite feeds for their sets.
Had the transmitters burned, not one person would have lost an important
conduit for emergency evacuation information.
in Los Angeles
is a never-used joke, and not one L.A.
TV or FM station broke regular coverage on this fire as it spread across the
mountains on that fateful Saturday and Sunday.
fire broke out on Wednesday, Aug. 26, while L.A. TV stations were still in
full-bore Michael Jackson funeral coverage mode. But it was not until the
following Friday night that the small fire blossomed into a full threat. The Los
Angeles Times now reports that the U.S. Forest Service seriously underestimated
the fire’s potential, botched the initial response and perhaps lulled TV
stations into complacency. But the towering “pyrocumulus” cloud that rose,
Hiroshima-like, over Los Angeles on that sunny Saturday should have been a
wakeup call to Channels 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 34 and 52. It wasn’t.
living in 6,200 homes along a 10-mile swath of foothills were evacuated due to
the fire that weekend. Those people were in immediate danger, and they were
evacuated without any direction or help from TV broadcasters. Eighty-nine
houses burned! Had there been heavy winds, tens of thousands of people would
have been in a firestorm, and L.A. TV would have been in regular programming.
to the L.A. Observer Web page with this scan, which has been quoted widely: “It’s 5 p.m. on Saturday, the biggest fire in
years is in the backyards of thousands of homes from Lake View Terrace to Pasadena, and NOT ONE Los
Angeles TV station is providing continuous coverage.
station went live with continuous coverage until Monday morning, nearly 54
hours after evacuations began. Only all-news KNX radio offered continuous
coverage from reporters Saturday and Sunday, and its 1935-era technology, in
the form of 50,000-watts of canyon and buzz-piercing, nondirectional, glorious
analog AM from its antenna 30 miles away in Torrance, was the only continuous coverage.
Two other stations, KFI and KPCC, also had reporters there that weekend for
rely on TV pictures to see how close a fire is, and we make decisions on
evacuating or rushing to help others based on that critical data. But for the
first time, panicked residents saw fire near their houses and were unable to
access any live TV chopper shots of where the fire was. Dozens of blogs,
citizen newsgathering sites and telephone trees were alight with the same
desperate messages: “Where is the fire? Where are the TV station choppers?” Citizens
were forced to rely on volunteer sites like Altadenablog, which did a heroic job
telling people where the fire was, a job that the TV stations refused to do.
member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors was so disgusted by the
lack of live TV coverage that he publicly lashed out at the fact that tens of
thousands of people were in direct danger, in the path of fire, and not one Los Angeles TV station provided
live coverage. “There were a large
number of evacuations taking place, people and animals were in danger, and
people had no information of where to go,” Supervisor Mike Antonovich
said in an interview. “I’m upset. The
media let people down during a horrendous fire, one of the worst in the county’s
Times television critic Mary McNamara, herself an evacuee, wrote: “Over the weekend, it was a virtual, and
inexplicable, news blackout.” Whittier Daily News columnist Robert
Rector: “Amid the triumphs and
tragedies that these sort of disasters provide, there was scathing criticism.
The media—specifically television—is being assailed for their coverage of the
fire, or lack of it, particularly in its beginning stages.”
usual, was not activated in Los
Angeles. It is important to know that L.A. emergency authorities relied on sirens, Reverse
911 and cops knocking on doors to get the word out. The EAS system has never been activated for a major
emergency in Los Angeles.
During the riots, the floods, the earthquakes, the old L.A. EBS and the new EAS
were never activated.
people next to the Station Fire and they will tell you: we’re on our own in L.A.,
too. I’m glad they saved Mount Wilson,
but as far as relaying emergency information, the historic observatory up there
is more useful.
The author worked as a TV news assignments editor
and operations manager at KABC, KCBS and KTLA for 23 years, just graduated from
law school, and is an environmental law consultant who occasionally covers
breaking news for a wire service.