Monday, October 17, 2011

KOME FM 95.3 silent on $250K tower built by DHS

Meridian – It was one of those nightmare scenes that happen suddenly, way after midnight.

At 1:37 a.m. on January 18, 2002, a Canadian Pacific train derailed outside Minot, North Dakota. Thirty of its cars ruptured and sprayed 240,000 gallons of deadly anhydrous ammonia into the atmosphere.

The caustic vapor – which quickly bonds with the moisture in a person's lungs and causes pneumonia, drowning the victim - immediately started making people sick. One died, more than 100 were hospitalized, and emergency workers were at a loss to let the estimated 10 to 12,000 residents affected know they needed to evacuate the area.

According to a railroad accident report, “Damages exceeded $2 million, and more than $8 million has been spent for environmental remediation.”

Rescue workers told the National Transportation Safety Board investigators about how they sat helpless in their vehicles, watching stricken citizens as they tried to crawl to safety.

The accident happened just west of town in a housing development outside city limits. Sirens designed to warn Minot's residents of fire, flood or tornadoes were unable to reach those in danger because they are aimed at areas inside the city.

The town's radio station was manned, but by only one employee of Clear Channel Broadcasting, the giant corporation that operates about 1,200 local radio stations by remote control from a satellite dish farm in San Antonio.

The employee was not answering the phone, so it was impossible to get in touch with him so he could break in on programming and warn listeners of the danger. Calls to corporate headquarters yielded the touch tone tag so familiar to those trying to get in communication with large organizations too busy to take calls.

As a result, the six non-religious radio stations in Minot controlled by Clear Channel made no mention of the emergency.

They finally located the television station's news director at home, in bed, long after the emergency developed.

By then, the town's residents, all of whom had been assured by 9-1-1 operators that local radio and cable channels were making announcements to tell people not to go outside, were on their own.

Things haven't changed much since then, at least not in Meridian, Texas, where the venerable FM station, KOME FM, has been off the air for many months since the local emergency management department rebuilt the Bosque County broadcasting tower to a new 300-foot height using a $250,000 federal grant from FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security.

A property of a mutual fund and money management outfit, Luther King Capital Management of Ft. Worth, the 25,000-watt station had to take down its antenna and move its transmitter so work on the new 300-foot tower could be completed.

“They have never put their stuff up on the new tower,” said Dewey Ratliff, emergency management director. “I don't know why.”

Reached for comment after several hang-ups by receptionists, a Mr. Jerry Schlaegel said, “Right now, we are unable to transmit.” Asked why, he said, “I would rather not say.”

Mr. Ratliff explained that the grant was arranged in part because Bosque County has a commercial radio station capable of transmitting emergency announcements. He had a mechanism in the county's office he could use to interrupt programming and put out the word over the air.

He leased the station space on the tower and in the transmitter shack for the purpose.

“The main reason why I was wanting to enter the lease was so they could be an emergency broadcast system. They gave me internet access to say what I wanted to say...They lost that internet access to the tower, so I lost my access...They're still paying rent. I checked; we still get a monthly check.”

Happily, the county has a contract with a Florida outfit named Emtel, which enables Mr. Ratliff to get on line and send out phone calls or text messages to cell phone users to alert residents of any emergency problem.

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