The Value of Travelers’ Information Radio Stations

9 01 2013

Travelers’ Information Stations are operated by governmental entities for the purpose of broadcasting information by low-wattage AM radio to the traveling public.  Fort Bend County operates 1670 AM, and other jurisdictions in Fort Bend County also operate such stations (Missouri City, Stafford, Sugar Land); sometimes referred to simply as “TIS.”  Agencies operating a TIS must be licensed, operate in the AM Broadcast Band; are limited to a 10 watt transmitter output tower; and may not transmit commercial information.

Fort Bend County belongs to the American Association of Information Radio Operators (AAIRO).  AAIRO is comprised of 346 members, consisting of government agencies and associated individuals in the public safety community in the United States.  For several years, AAIRO has advocated for changes in the regulations governing TIS;  the organization is requesting specific changes to FCC regulations so that such stations are authorized to broadcast critical weather and safety information to the traveling public in advance of, during, and following disasters and emergencies.  By doing so, TIS can assist in mitigating the loss of life and property.

It is hoped that the FCC will take into account the experiences of coastal communities in New Jersey that experienced severe weather during the landfall of Hurricane Sandy last year.  As you will see below, these AM radio stations became the primary source of information for citizens during and after the storm due to the failures of other means of communication.  As reported in The Source newsletter, October 2012, here is the story of what occurred in Manasquan, New Jersey:

Withstanding Sandy

Hurricane Sandy slammed ashore south of this New Jersey coastal community on October 29. Ninety MPH winds pushed a wall of water into flood-prone Manasquan, causing massive flooding. Emergency Manager Chris Tucker tapped his Information Radio Station on AM 1620 to be the solitary source to keep residents apprised, with the anticipation that “data and internet connections might be compromised.” They were. Additionally, his station’s antenna system encountered enormous winds and was engulfed by 3 feet of storm surge. It kept working. The station’s battery backup – occasionally charged via generator – powered the station continuously through the storm.

Manasquan operates an Alert AM Information Radio Station with a hurricane wind rated antenna system, designed to withstand gusts of up to 150mph. Several flashing alert signs are positioned on local roads to alert motorists.
Manasquan001
Eighty miles downshore near Sandy’s landfall, Police Chief Robert Matteucci of North Wildwood, NJ, utilized his 1640 signal to protect life and property. The signal remained on the air throughout the storm. The broadcast
, which was simulcast to the Internet, advised residents how to find assistance and provided emergency numbers for electric and gas companies. The internet stream was monitored by more than 1000 people in nine states, some as far away as California. Internet listeners to North Wildwood’s stream logged more than 14,400 minutes the day Sandy made landfall.
Manasquan002
Manasquan’s and North Wildwood’s Information Radio Stations comprise but 2 of more than 40 stations installed in NJ in the past 10 years to protect citizens’ lives/property in a disaster.

At North Plainfield, NJ, operator Rich Phoenix comments, “Only radio stations and battery or crank-powered receivers will survive [during a disaster]. Local information is king; and the TIS stations are top of the heap.”

AAIRO’s Petition Docket 09-19 for rulemaking as been under consideration by the FCC for a very long time with no action being taken by the FCC.  Many communities across the nation, including many along the coast in New Jersey, have written letters to the FCC supporting the AAIRO position.  Now is the time, that the FCC revise TIS content rules to specifically state that weather forecasts (e.g. NOAA radio rebroadcasts), warnings, and emergency preparedness information can be broadcast at any time— before, during, and after a disaster—as a means of mitigating loss of life and damage to property.

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Texas Senate Begins Hearing on Rolling Blackouts Today

15 02 2011

In early February, some portions of Texas faced “whiteout” conditions during the major winter storm event that affected nearly the entire State.  In some places, the winter weather was very bad— snow, sleet, wind.  In other places, not so bad—- very cold weather and some ice.  Nearly all places experienced cold temperatures that are not normally felt in the southern reaches of Texas; and something else—– “blackout” conditions.

For some period of time, citizens of the State of Texas had to cope with loss of power— not only to residences and businesses, but to police stations, courthouses, and even Emergency Operations Centers.  Emergency management officials needed to work diligently to ensure that critical infrastructure was powered up— sometimes with barely any notice at all.  In the case of Fort Bend County, I learned that the County EOC had lost connection to the electrical grid at the exact same time I received an email on my Blackberry from our local electrical utility indicating that “rolling blackouts” were possible. 

The County did not experience any serious problems (the EOC’s emergency generator kicked in perfectly).  The main problem we faced was trying to get the word out as quickly as possible to let others in our County know that power loss was probable at different times during the day.  However, it appears that the problems may have caused other concerns across the State.  In the article below, written by Austin American-Statesman writers Laylan Copelin, Eric Dexheimer, and Marty Toohey, officials from the power industry and state agencies will be testifying today in Austin on exactly what caused the “blackout” conditions.  As printed in the Austin-American Statesman on Monday, February 14th:

Nearly two weeks after electric blackouts rolled across Texas, the power industry and state agencies are being called on the carpet at the Capitol today to explain what happened and why.  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is also looking for explanations; it announced Monday that it is launching an inquiry into the Feb. 2 outages that left hundreds of thousands of Texans without electricity.

Texas’ electric grid is separate from the rest of the country and is ordinarily not subject to federal regulation. But the commission can ensure compliance with federal standards for reliable electric delivery.  At the Capitol today, a joint Senate committee hearing on the outages will begin at 8:30 a.m. and could take most of the day.

First up: witnesses from the Public Utility Commission ; the Railroad Commission, which regulates natural gas; the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality ; the Office of Public Utility Counsel ; and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas . ERCOT operates the grid that serves 22 million customers over 75 percent of Texas, including Austin.

ERCOT ordered the rolling blackouts to keep the grid from crashing during a winter storm. The nonprofit organization was already on the Legislature’s radar because of a critical review of spending on improvements to its wholesale market system.

At a Monday meeting titled “Lessons Learned” at ERCOT’s administrative offices in Southeast Austin, electric transmission and distribution representatives aired their concerns in the wake of the outages. Many said their main complaint was simply poor communication.

“If we could get a little bit earlier warning,” said David Wood , Austin Energy’s vice president for electrical service delivery. Like other utilities, Austin Energy got a half-hour notice of the rolling blackouts. “I’ve been beat up about, ‘Why couldn’t you tell us this was coming?’\u2009”

Wood said an earlier alert would have permitted the utility company to better adjust its staffing levels and to implement a program in which Austin Energy contacts a list of local businesses that have agreed to reduce their electricity usage in power emergencies.  About four dozen Austin-area businesses agreed to reduced their electrical usage on Feb. 2, from turning off lights and lowering thermostats to shutting down operations completely and sending employees home, said Austin Energy spokesman Ed Clark .

Dottie Roark , a spokeswoman for ERCOT, said Lessons Learned meetings are standard after any major event affecting the power grid. Recommendations from the meeting are considered for changes in rules governing electric distribution.  The storm knocked more than 80 of the state 550 generators offline, according to early explanations, primarily because of frozen or broken equipment, including safety instruments that shut down some of the state’s largest, newest coal-fired plants.

An unknown number of gas-fired generators didn’t have fuel to generate electricity because in some instances the companies had contracts that allowed their gas service to be interrupted in exchange for cheaper prices.  Also today, senators will hear from utility representatives, including Austin Energy and Luminant , the generating arm of Dallas-based Energy Future Holdings .

Luminant has reported that the blackouts cost the company $30 million when several of its generating plants broke down, forcing it to buy electricity on the open market, where prices rose from $50 per megawatt-hour to $3,000 .  No one, except possibly ERCOT and those with oversight of the organization, knows how much money other power companies made or lost on Feb. 2. ERCOT says it cannot release most of the information until 60 days after the outages because of state laws intended to guard competitive information.

But that hasn’t stopped speculation about the possible winners and losers.  Public Citizen , a consumer advocacy and environmental watchdog group, estimates that the utility companies collectively netted anywhere from $46 million to $149 million, depending on how many ran short of power.  The cost will ultimately be passed on to consumers, said Tom “Smitty” Smith , head of Public Citizen’s Texas branch.

“Before deregulation, when bad weather was coming, regulated utilities were expected to start up plants in advance and were fined if there were market shortages,” said Smith, who is planning to call for reforms at the Legislature. “In today’s deregulated market, we reward market shortfalls and allow participants to make millions.”

Others said too little information has been released to make such assessments. Among them is Ross Baldick , a University of Texas professor with expertise in the “nodal” grid management system that ERCOT started using late last year.  For instance, Baldick said, some companies agree a day in advance to sell a specific amount of power on the ERCOT grid for a specific price, in what’s known as the “day-ahead market.”

If those companies could not provide that power on Feb. 2 and instead had to buy it back on the open market during the outages, the losses could be absorbed by the companies (and their shareholders), not individual consumers.  Whether companies profited from the power shortage “depends not only on the real-time market but also the day-ahead market” and other factors that are not yet known, Baldick said.





Missouri City Prepared for Winter

8 01 2010

What follows is a Media News Release from the City of Missouri City that was distributed on January 8, 2010.  The Media News Release was provided by Stacie Walker, Public Information Manager for the City.

With winter’s bluster blowing in, Missouri City is prepared to respond to emergency situations and encourages residents to protect their homes and drive safely.

“We will closely monitor the weather as we focus to protect the City’s infrastructure and on events placing anyone in harm’s way,” John Sheffield, the City’s Emergency Management Coordinator, said Thursday.

In addition to the City’s Police and Fire departments being on alert, the Public Works Department is also closely monitoring road conditions. “We have taken preventive measures and partnered with the Texas Department of Transportation to spray a chemical on Trammel Fresno Bridge to help prevent icy conditions from forming,” Assistant Public Works Director Sharon Valiante said. Spraying the bridge is essential because it is the first to ice in extreme cold weather. Additionally, “we are prepared to close any bridges or roadways that become a safety hazard to residents,” Valiante said.

The City is also working to protect cats and dogs housed in the Animal Shelter. “We bring the animals inside when it’s cold—all the kennel doors to the outside are closed and they are locked inside,” Animal Control Supervisor Juan Acevedo said. He added that “the shelter has central heat, which is on at all times and blankets are provided for the smaller dogs. Staff comes in on Saturday and Sunday to monitor the animals.”

Cold temperatures can cause expensive damage to homes and businesses. To avoid the hassle of dealing with water pipes that freeze and burst, damaged sprinkler systems and swimming pools, homeowners are encouraged to do the following before freezing occurs:

  • Protect faucets, outdoor pipes, and exposed pipes in unheated areas by wrapping them with rags, newspaper, trash bags, or plastic foam.
  • Insulate your outdoor water meter box and be sure its lid is on tight.
  • Cover any vents around your home’s foundation.
  • Drain and store water hoses indoors.
  • Protect outdoor electrical pumps.
  • Drain swimming pool circulation systems or keep the pump motor running. (Run the pump motor only in a short freeze. Running the motor for long periods could damage it.)
  • Drain water sprinkler supply lines.
  • Open the cabinets under sinks in your kitchen and bathrooms to allow heated indoor air to circulate around the water pipes.
  • Set your thermostat at a minimum temperature of 55 degrees, especially when you’re gone for the day or away for an extended period.
  • Let indoor faucets drip.
  • Make sure you know where your home’s shut-off valve is and how to turn it on and off.
  • If you leave town, consider turning off your water at the shut-off valve while faucets are running to drain your pipes. Make sure you turn the faucets off before you turn the shut-off valve back on.
  • If you drain your pipes, contact your electric or gas utility company for instructions on protecting your water heater.

For additional questions or concerns, residents are asked to call 281-403-8970, from 7a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, or 281-403-8700 after hours.





Area Fire Officials Warn of Danger as Freeze Approaches

6 01 2010

The following item was printed in the Montgomery County Police Reporter on Tuesday, January 5, 2010.  The item was filed by Jamie Nash.  What follows is a statement from the Montgomery County, Harris County, and Fort Bend County Fire Marshal Offices:

Fire officials are concerned about heater safety as use of alternative heat sources spikes.  Heating is a major cause of home fires, especially during periods of extreme cold weather as residents turn to alternative heat sources.   Officials urge caution with home heaters as temperatures drop.

As temperatures plummet over the next few days, residents will have many concerns, such as taking care of the three P’s ( Pets, Plants & Pipes ).  As Firefighters, we are concerned that there is another danger that is often overlooked, that is the risk of injury or death from home heating fires.  It is estimated that there are approximately 64,000 home heating fires annually in the United States, resulting in nearly $1 Billion dollars in damage, 540 civilian deaths and 1400 injuries.

The high cost of home heating fuels and utilities has caused many Americans to search for alternative home heating sources such as wood burning stoves, space heaters, and fireplaces. Heating is one of the leading causes of residential fires. Over one-quarter of these fires result from improper maintenance of equipment, specifically the failure to clean the equipment.

Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is another danger when using heating equipment fueled by fossil fuel. It occurs most often when equipment is not vented properly. CO deaths have been on the rise since 1999. On average there were 181 unintentional non-fire deaths from CO poisoning associated with consumer products per year from 2004-2006 compared to 123 from 1999-2001 (Source: Consumer Product Safety Commission). Carbon monoxide poisoning is most fatal to adults age 65 or older.

The number one safety recommendation is to first and foremost have working smoke detectors throughout the home, especially in all sleeping areas.  Homes with gas appliances must also have a Carbon Monoxide Detector on each floor.  Having a working smoke alarm dramatically increases your chances of surviving a fire.





Winter Weather: Avoiding Damage from Frozen Pipes

5 01 2010

The Texas Department of Insurance has issued a news release on how citizens can avoid home damage from frozen pipes.  The release is printed in its entirety below.  The release was issued today; for more information please contact Jerry Hagins or Ben Gonzalez at 512-463-6425.  The news release is also posted on the Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management web site, but I am including in my blog to further distribution.  This is important information given the freezing temperature Fort Bend County will be experiencing over the next several days.

Texas weather can change quickly, especially in the winter. A fast-moving cold front can cause temperatures to drop below freezing within hours. Outdoor pipes, pipes in unheated areas, and pipes that run along uninsulated exterior walls can burst if the water in them freezes and expands. This can shatter pipe seals or the pipes themselves, sending water pouring through your house. You can avoid thousands of dollars of damage to your walls, ceilings, carpets, and furniture by taking a few simple measures to protect your home.

Before the Freeze

  • Protect faucets, outdoor pipes, and exposed pipes in unheated areas by wrapping them with rags, newspaper, trash bags, or plastic foam.
  • Insulate your outdoor water meter box and be sure its lid is on tight.
  • Cover any vents around your home’s foundation.
  • Drain and store water hoses indoors.
  • Protect outdoor electrical pumps.
  • Drain swimming pool circulation systems or keep the pump motor running. (Run the pump motor only in a short freeze. Running the motor for long periods could damage it.)
  • Drain water sprinkler supply lines.
  • Open the cabinets under sinks in your kitchen and bathrooms to allow heated indoor air to circulate around the water pipes.
  • Set your thermostat at a minimum temperature of 55 degrees, especially when you’re gone for the day or away for an extended period.
  • Let indoor faucets drip; it isn’t necessary to run a stream of water.
  • Make sure you know where your home’s shut-off valve is and how to turn it on and off.
  • If you leave town, consider turning off your water at the shut-off valve while faucets are running to drain your pipes. Make sure you turn the faucets off before you turn the shut-off valve back on.
  • If you drain your pipes, contact your electric or gas utility company for instructions on protecting your water heater.

If Your Pipes Freeze

  • If a pipe bursts and floods your home, turn the water off at the shut-off valve.  Call a plumber for help if you can’t find the broken pipe or if it’s inaccessible.  Don’t turn the water back on until the pipe has been repaired.
  • If the pipe hasn’t burst, thaw it out with an electric heating pad, hair dryer, portable space heater, or towel soaked with hot water. Apply heat by slowly moving the heat source toward the coldest spot on the pipe. Never concentrate heat in one spot because cracking ice can shatter a pipe. Turn the faucet on and let it run until the pipe is thawed and water pressure returns to normal.
  • Don’t use a blowtorch or other open-flame device. They are fire risks and carbon monoxide exposure risks.

If You Have a Loss

  • Contact your insurance agent or company promptly. Follow up as soon as possible with a written claim to protect your rights under Texas’ prompt-payment law.
  • Review your coverage. Most homeowners and renters policies pay for property repair. In addition, most policies pay for debris removal and for additional living expenses if you have to move temporarily because of damage to your home. If you can’t find your policy, ask your agent or company for a copy.
  • Homeowners policies may require you to make temporary repairs to protect your property from further damage. Your policy covers the cost of these repairs. Keep all receipts and damaged property for the adjuster to inspect. If possible, take photos or videos of the damage before making repairs. Don’t make permanent repairs. An insurance company may deny a claim if you make permanent repairs before an adjuster inspects the damage.
  • Most homeowners policies do not cover loss caused by freezing pipes while your house is unoccupied unless you used reasonable care to maintain heat in the building; shut off the water supply; and drain water from plumbing, heating, and air conditioning systems.

Questions

  • If you have questions about insurance, call TDI’s Consumer Help Line toll-free: 1-800-252-3439 or visit the TDI website: www.tdi.state.tx.us. Assistance is available in both English and Spanish.




Prepare for Cold Weather in Fort Bend County

4 01 2010

If you have caught the news reports the last few days, you know that unseasonably cool weather, some might call it “cold” weather, will persist in our County for next week.  The primary focus is an Arctic front that will arrive in our area on Wednesday night.  Some chance of rain associated with the front so we could have rain mixed with some sleet on Thursday morning, though main sleet threat is north of Fort Bend County.

However, very cold temperatures will settle in behind the front and near record lows are possible Friday through Sunday.  Temperatures will drop through the day on Thursday, starting out at about 50 degrees and ending up at about 25 degrees.  It also appears that subfreezing temperatures are likely all day on Friday.  High temperature for Saturday is only expected to get to about 38 degrees.

Now is the time to get prepared, if you have not already.  Remember the following:

Pets:  Consider bringing you outdoor pets inside, especially dogs.  The cold weather along with the winds can be deadly to your pets if you do not take proper actions to provide them with shelter.  Make sure your pets have constant source of water; make sure that outdoor water bowls do not freeze. 

Pipes:  Protect your water pipes.  Water expands as it freezes which may break pipes; ice forming in a pipe can result in pipe failure.  Uninsulated pipes are at risk of freezing when temperatures get belwo 25 degrees for an extended period of time.  Seal any openings where cold air may get to pipes.  Leave cabinet doors in kitchens and bathrooms open so warmer air circulates around pipes.

Plants:  Sensitive plants should be covered and heavily mulched.  Plants can be covered with plastic and sheets to keep the chill off, but the covering should be removed as the weather warms up and the sun comes out to prevent the plant from heating up and burning the foliage.  Move any container plants indoors.