Excerpt from Radio Guide magazine: July-August 2010 issue, page 16
Disaster Preparedness- Alert FM Reviving a Dormant RDS
By Judith Gross
You remember RDS, don’t you? Also called RBDS, it stood for Radio Data System (or Radio Broadcast Data System) and it was going to do all sorts of great things for FM radio. The technology uses FM subcarriers to broadcast a data stream that can be decoded by RDS receivers, many of which are now standard equipment in car radios. Stations generally use RDS today to identify a particular song as it plays. But a lot of other great ideas about how RDS would be used got lost in the clamor of emerging digital technologies – mostly iPods, cell phones and an increasingly mobile cyber-world. A technology based on FM radio seems to be so old-school these days.
New Use for RDS
Enter Alert FM, an application of RDS for emergency notification that can custom-tailor widely-based messages for local use. Add radio broadcasters’ desire to put
FM chips into cell phones, and you end up with a new use for a technology that previously had nowhere to go.
Alert FM is the creation of Tennessee-based Global Security Systems (GSS). It lets national, state and local emergency managers send messages to any FM receiver, including wireless or mobile devices.
“We’re on 200 stations in 13 states around the country,” notes GSS General Manager Jim Lowery. Mississippi was the first to begin using Alert FM.
Broadcasters Warming to the Idea
Some of the areas that have adopted the system are Tennessee, Arizona, Michigan, Florida, New Jersey and South Carolina. It has won the support of state broadcast associations in Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri and New Jersey, among others.
Early Flood Warning
Alert FM was recently put to the test, with severe flooding in Henderson County, Tennessee, which is roughlyhalfway between Memphis and Nashville.
At the beginning of May, heavy rains caused waterways to overflow and wash out bridges, dams and culverts, pouring water onto roadways and leaving motorists
stranded, even up on I-40, according to Henderson County Emergency Management Director Jim McKee. “Alert FM acted as our early warning system,” said McKee.
“We had receivers in nursing homes, hospitals, schools, day care centers and police agencies and we were able to get flash flood information out to a wide area quickly and early.” McKee noted that the Alert FM system even reached the hard to reach places.
“There are dead spots in weather radio reception that Alert FM was able to get to because FM coverage reaches the whole county,” said McKee.
The county got a grant from the NOAA to buy the Alert FM receivers, which are conveniently small and sold in the local Radio Shack, according to McKee, for
about $40 for the small mobile receiver. Some emergency offices have received similar grants from NOAA of the office of Homeland Security to supply the receivers to critical first responders and public places.
Alert FM is set up at four radio stations in the Henderson area: WTBG-FM, WKNP-FM, WWGM-FM and WAUVFM.
“This seemed like one more way for people to be alerted, one more way we could help the community,” said Carlton Veirs, GM of WTBG-FM in Brownsville,
“We’ve had some tragedies with flooding in the past, including some fatalities,” he said.
Minimum Equipment, Easy Setup
Equipment at the station level is simple: a V-SAT dish and an RDS encoder. The stations can use the RDS data stream for their own purposes, such as identifying song titles or scrolling headlines, in non-emergency times.
The equipment was installed by Alert FM at no cost to the station under a partnership agreement.
Veirs said he knew of RDS technology before being approached by Alert FM but hadn’t considered it a particular priority. When there is no need for the emergency alerting, WTBG scrolls its call letters and frequency over the data stream.
What Alert FM brings to the RDS stream is the ability to select regions for the receivers to monitor and a means to transmit messages from NOAA, FEMA and other national emergency notifiers as well as from state agencies and local emergency managers.
“The messages from NOAA or FEMA are on an automated stream,” GSS’ Lowery said. “Then user-generated local info can be added as well. But the beauty of Alert FM is that, unlike EAS, there is no audio interruption.”
GSS is working all sides of the equation, getting cooperation from emergency managers; putting the technology into FM stations and getting outlets for receiver
sales as well.
“FM signals are nearly ubiquitous and it makes sense to send out emergency warnings via RDS,” according to Lowery. “If cell phone manufacturers start putting FM
receivers into cell phones, that’s one more way to get important warnings out.”
Cell Phones Could Be An Answer
That’s a big “IF” broadcasters are pushing for. Some 60 members of Congress support putting FM chips into cell phones. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has told cell phone providers to come up with a Commercial Mobile Alert System by 2012. Alert FM might be one way they could comply.
If large broadcasters such as Emmis are successful in their efforts to get the cellular companies to include FM receivers, it could be a big boost for Alert FM.
“If that happens, we’ll make an app for it,” Lowery said.
In such a case, RDS, a sleeping technology in search of a critical function, could go from mere entertainment to possibly saving lives.
Judith Gross is a former radio talent who spent a few
years in the Colorado Springs market. Judith runs her own
freelance writing and marketing business in Binghamton, NY.
Visit her website at www.jgcreativemedia.com
Flood Photos courtesy of David Anderson, Lexington
Progress News Paper.
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Radio Guide Magaznine August 2010.pdf (522.48 kb)