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U.S. Government Says Broadcasters Are Officially “First Responders”

Largely overshadowed by the news of congressional approval of spectrum repack funding, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, includes a provision which will make it easier for stations to stay on the air or resume operations quickly during a government declared emergency.

The 2,232-page federal omnibus spending bill contains elements of the SANDY Act, (Securing Access to Networks in Disasters Act), which designates broadcasters as “first responders” in government declared emergencies.  President Trump signed the measure into law on March 23.

The designation is important because radio and TV stations play a lifesaving role during times of emergency by providing information to audiences.  It is also timely – Texas broadcasters head into Atlantic hurricane season on June 1.  The legislation will provide local broadcasters with access to vital resources to stay on the air when station transmission could be or are affected by a disaster.

Scott Flick, an attorney with TAB’s FCC legal counsel Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, said the law ensures station staff can enter restricted areas to access transmitter sites or studio facilities to make necessary repairs or preparations, but the measure “is not intended to facilitate broadcast news coverage by allowing reporters within the emergency perimeter.”

Davina Sashkin, an attorney with TAB Associate member law firm Fletcher Heald and Hildreth, said the designation recognizes the critical role that radio and television stations play during times of crisis.  “The new definition will allow these entities to be provided priority access to funding and resources through FEMA (such as fuel for generators) that were previously restricted to traditional first responders,” Sashkin said.

Congressional lawmakers have been trying for more than three years to pass federal legislation that ensures station staff have access to transmission and studio facilities to repair, maintain and operate equipment to ensure broadcast transmissions are not interrupted during an emergency such as a hurricane. 

While reports of government officials preventing broadcasters from accessing facilities during Hurricane Harvey were virtually non-existent, it was an issue for Texas broadcasters during 2005’s Hurricane Ike.  Southeast Texas broadcasters, for example, experienced the confiscation of fuel they had purchased to operate backup generators at transmitter and studio facilities.  Similar government overreach during Hurricanes Sandy and Irma led lawmakers to formulate a response to the issue.  The “first responder” concept almost succeeded last fall but differing versions of U.S. House and Senate bills were not reconciled in time for final approval.  

Questions?  Contact TAB's Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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