Stories from the Field: Using a Low-Powered Radio Station to Bolster Preparedness Efforts

The following story was submitted to NACCHO’s Stories from the Field website by Robert Cohen from Maine Township (IL) Regional Medical Reserve Corp on July 3. NACCHO’s Stories from the Field website provides a means for local health departments (LHDs) to share their experiences and demonstrate the value of public health. Stories from the Field can be used to support advocacy, peer learning, and collaboration with state and federal partners. Share your story at http://nacchostories.org.

Throughout the country, there are hundreds of small, low-powered radio stations that provide information about an area’s attractions, special road conditions, fire hazards, and so much more. These little gems can be of significant use during public health emergencies or area disasters.

During public health and safety emergencies, a low-powered portable emergency advisory radio station can directly reach citizens via standard radio receivers. It can be a lifesaver, allowing the broadcast of critical instructions and information regarding disasters/evacuations, medical emergencies (hospital surge, points-of-distribution field information, quarantine isolation, decontamination), terrorist/shooter incidents, HAZMAT and traffic information, and critical public safety instructions. Low-powered broadcasts may be received on standard vehicle radios or portable radios over a three- to five-mile range (25­–75 square miles). Systems today are so advanced that several can be linked together for greater coverage.

Low-powered AM radio stations can provide an additional tool during non-emergency times for broadcasting helpful public health information, developing community awareness for your programs, and also as a recruiting tool that does not have to be paid for each time it is utilized. The system we have can be run from a fixed location as we do most of the time or can be loaded into the back of a car and taken anywhere in our area and setup to broadcast pertinent information regarding a public health emergency or disaster related information. Portability also makes a low-powered radio station especially useful at large public gatherings for broadcasting key information, such as schedules, traffic, parking, safety, and critical instructions for patrons approaching or exiting.

Messaging can be controlled using flash drives […] and may also be uploaded via ethernet from a network or a laptop computer. If you need to “break in” to your messaging, you may do so live with a microphone. When you lose power in your area due to storm damage, you can still broadcast by connecting your unit to a generator.

Getting the word out to hundreds or thousands of residents on an ongoing basis can be a costly venture. Having your own low-powered AM radio station and some strategically placed signage telling people how to access your station can accomplish community outreach by continuously broadcasting your message with all of the pertinent information. We broadcast information regarding West Nile Virus, whenever there is a food recall in our area, storm-related information, flooding information, location of mass care or shelter facilities, and general community events information. Just think about an available 24/7 recruiting drive for your medical reserve corps or other programs. Look at what you might accomplish if thousands of people knew about a blood drive. Consider all of the information you could get out regarding point-of-distribution sites.

Since the inception of our station, we have increased volunteer enrollment in three of our programs. When flooding was a potential threat, those in prone areas were grateful for the extra warning we were able to give them. Our community events have been better attended as well. Most importantly, when we had to shut down our radio to change our antenna location, we got phone calls wondering what happened and why was our station off the air. This told us that our residents have embraced the system.

We found that instead of solely relying on public resources of newsprint and general radio, we are able to communicate specifically what we need to in order to keep our residents officially informed. By utilizing your own radio station, you are not limited to [whatever] time space a local television station may have to give you to get a condensed message out. Further, by having your own low-powered station, you can keep your message out there 24/7 for as long as needed, for mere pennies of electricity use.

Read more LHD stories from the field at http://nacchostories.org.

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