Las Vegas Sun

October 2, 2014

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Vegas PBS at the ready in case of disaster or terror attack

Las Vegas' public television station hopes to become a national model - not for its educational or children's programming, but by being the high-tech communications source for the region during a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

It might seem an unlikely role for Vegas PBS Channel 10, which is better known for "Sesame Street," multimedia resources for teachers and current-affairs programming.

With $1.2 million in state and federal grants, the station is developing the ability to operate at least a week with no external power, informing viewers and emergency personnel of crucial information when there may be no other sources.

"We asked ourselves, 'What would happen in the event of an attack? How could we be useful to our community?' " General Manager Tom Axtell said. "What we learned is all the infrastructure we built for education is what will be needed in case of an emergency."

This week, a work crew is installing a $400,000 generator to give the station, near Flamingo Road at Eastern Avenue, a way to power itself for at least a week. Inside a studio, two lockers hold enough supplies - including phones used during pledge drives - to equip a countywide emergency command center. In the most recent drill, Vegas PBS employees had the center up and running in 17 minutes, Axtell said.

The Clark County School Board holds the broadcasting license for Vegas PBS, formerly known as KLVX Channel 10. The station, which operates independent ly of the School District, includes eight broadcast channels, as well as on-demand educational programming and network services.

The station is doing more than preparing to broadcast during emergencies.

Vegas PBS is tapping a $500,000 federal grant from the Homeland Security Department to outfit 120 School Police vehicles with devices to receive data from digital television signals in a fraction of the time required by the Internet.

Municipal law enforcement agencies also have been offered the equipment, which will be operational when the new academic year begins in August.

Quick data delivery is all the more important after Nevada lawmakers in 2001 required public schools to provide emergency staff contact information, campus building blueprints and other details to emergency planners and "first responder" agencies. In 2003 the requirement to submit blueprints and other information was expanded to casinos and public utilities. And in 2005 mapping systems of all public buildings were required. As part of the federal grant, Vegas PBS is collecting everything from campus floor plans to school nurses' rosters of medically fragile students. If Vegas PBS' assistance is requested, data from other agencies can also be transmitted using the digital lines, Axtell said.

The digital television signal will serve as backup if conventional communication lines collapse. On 9/11, first responders in New York City were cut off from one another and central command centers when cell phones failed. Similar problems occurred after bombings in London and Madrid, Spain.

Metro Police Deputy Chief Kathleen Suey, who oversees homeland security matters for the department, said there was keen interest in the new digital TV-signal communications devices being provided by Vegas PBS.

"In the event of a critical incident it's quite possible that our cell phones would go down, and we may not have access to the Internet," Suey said. "It's extremely critical that we have other notification systems we can utilize."

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks , 31 public television affiliates, including Vegas PBS, formed a coalition to make sure the stations' resources would be put to use in the event of an emergency. Vegas PBS set out to distinguish itself by volunteering to test new technology.

At a national broadcasters' conference in 2004 , Vegas PBS demonstrated that the digital television spectrum could be used to transmit emergency messages, even if main power sources were knocked out. The messages could also be targeted to a specific group, such as medical personnel, and encrypted to prevent unauthorized reception. The then-director of national security coordination for the Homeland Security Department saw the demonstration and praised the innovation.

This year, the technology became the basis for the new national Digital Emergency Alert System, which would allow federal authorities to broadcast warnings and share information with viewers, as well as send targeted messages to emergency personnel via cell phones or e-mail.

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