Mississippi Public Broadcasting: Keeping Residents Safe During Severe Weather
For almost 15 years, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) has invested in building local station capacity to help provide assistance to local and state emergency service providers. Public media stations’ digital infrastructure and spectrum provide the backbone for emergency alert, public safety, first responder, and homeland security services in many states and local communities.
June 1 marks the official start of the Atlantic Hurricane season. This year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting a quieter than normal season, but it only takes one hurricane or tropical storm to endanger the lives of millions of people.
Along the Gulf Coast, Mississippi Public Broadcasting (MPB) is helping to protect and save lives by providing a valuable resource to residents in disseminating information as part of the state’s emergency preparedness and response system.
One of the biggest services that MPB provides is operating Mississippi Emergency Management Agency’s (MEMA) equipment, which provides a feed to all television stations in the state. MPB’s satellite uplink truck is also made available to provide mobile satellite communications during times of crisis.
“As Mississippi’s only statewide television and radio broadcasters, with eight transmitters for radio and eight transmitters for television, MPB is uniquely positioned to serve the state during emergencies. We are ready to work whenever MEMA calls informing us of the need to mobilize,” said Mari Irby, Associate Communications Director, MPB.
The Mississippi Department of Transportation also uses MPB’s resources and programs to disseminate information. The department has large digital signs in high-traffic and strategic locations around the state. During emergency situations the signs display a message advising the public to tune in to MPB Think Radio for information.
The station’s radio and news staff have their own emergency plans to provide continuous coverage of the event. Depending on the severity of the situation, MPB may pre-empt programming with the latest weather warnings, road conditions and shelter information as well as major business and school closings. MPB TV runs crawls at the bottom of the screen with weather updates and a map of affected counties in the corner of the screen. Information is also posted on the MPB website and social media channels.
MPB also plays a crucial role in providing Spanish-speakers and people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing with important emergency communications. Mississippi has a small, but growing number of people who speak Spanish exclusively. A group of MPB employees are assigned to MEMA’s Joint Information Center (JIC) working 12-hour shifts each. Mari Irby, MPB associate communications director, is one of two people managing the operations of the JIC. Irby speaks fluent Spanish and translates information for MEMA. She also answers phone calls coming to the JIC from Hispanic callers looking for shelter and rescue.
In addition, 26 local public radio stations in the Gulf Coast states of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas are involved in a pilot project with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security/FEMA, NPR Labs, and the Public Radio Satellite System to demonstrate the ability to reach people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing with emergency messages through broadcast text. The pilot system is intended to demonstrate that all individuals, including those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, can rely on battery-powered radios to stay informed in emergencies when electricity, Internet and other communications channels are unavailable.
In 2005, during Hurricane Katrina, MPB and MEMA’s relationship grew to a new level of trust and dependence on each other. MPB was a lifeline to residents across the state, providing information to people in the path of the storm, as well as to concerned family members who lived in other parts of the state.
“MPB is ready to assist MEMA no matter what the emergency situation,” said Irby. “Today, if there is a weather emergency of any type one of the first calls placed by MEMA is to MPB.”
MPB also worked with MEMA on other natural disasters. During the past two winters, parts of Mississippi have been hit hard by ice storms. The state has also been ravaged by flooding in communities along the Mississippi River. When tornadoes swept through the tiny town of Smithville, killing more than 20 people, MPB was ready to assist MEMA in relaying information to the public.
“Because Mississippi is susceptible to different kinds of weather events, throughout the year MPB takes the proactive step to educate the public about emergency preparedness,” said Irby.
MPB is considering incorporating MEMA’s educational approach to educating children on emergencies – which includes characters in costumes – into current road tours MPB has planned with their education staff. MPB and MEMA are also currently in discussion to install stationary camera locations and other technological enhancements on the Mississippi Gulf Coast at the agency’s command center. The cameras would be instrumental during hurricanes.
The 2015 Hurricane season runs through November 30.