Cable companies are fighting fire with information, kicking
their public-affairs machines into high gear to help their communities cope with the
decimating blazes that were raging throughout Florida last week.
At the request of the office of Gov. Linden Chiles and the
state Office of Emergency Preparedness, Sunshine Network will launch a daily telecast to
update residents on the status of the many fire locations, evacuations and road closures.
The parties met last Thursday to finalize plans on whether the daily program would be
live, or preproduced and updated as necessary, and it was anticipated that disaster
coverage would begin by Sunday.
"This shows the value of Sunshine as a provider of
public-affairs programming," said Steve Wilkerson, president of the Florida Cable
Telecommunications Association, which helped to put the parties together, noting that
cable is the only medium available throughout the state.
The FCTA will produce cross-channel spots for state
operators to use to direct consumers to the daily OEP announcements, Wilkerson added.
From animal rescue to the purchase of bottled water for
parched firefighters, cable systems have emphasized that they are part of communities.
When Mike Weaver, technical-operations manager for Genesis
Cable in Mims, was allowed back into his system by the National Guard after a four-day
forced evacuation, his jaw dropped: He had lost 30 percent of his system.
"It looked like a plane had flown over and dropped
napalm," he said, adding ruefully, "It really put a hurting on us."
But before getting the operation's house back in
order, Weaver won approval from corporate headquarters in Georgia to donate $1,000 to the
Firefighters Association of Brevard County. He said he was amazed at what they were able
to save in the face of a fire moving at 45 miles per hour.
It moved so fast, "it hit us flat-footed," he
said, preventing implementation of the system's disaster plan.
The fire was a real setback: Genesis was three weeks away
from completion of a fiber rebuild. It lost a mile-and-a-half of fiber and 40,000 feet of
coaxial cable, and it faces a three-month delay in the rebuild.
Weaver lauded his contractor, CableCon USA, which rounded
up crews from North Carolina and South Carolina; obtained special permits to travel on
Interstate 95, which was closed to nonessential traffic; and got to work re-establishing
service to the 38 subscribers that he lost out of a customer base of 2,000.
As service crews checked in on a squawk box in the
background, Weaver said he was praying for good, soaking rains.
Firefighters aren't the only saviors: Many cable
operators are now thanking planned-community restrictions, or their own decisions, which
caused them to bury their plant underground. This prevented wide-scale destruction in even
the most charred communities.
Steve Shirah, owner of Tomoka Cable TV in Ormond Beach,
said he paid the extra upfront installation cost of undergrounding because he was tired of
paying rising pole-attachment fees. Plus, in the case of disasters, he noted that cable
operators are last in line, behind power companies, for reattaching plant. His decision
paid off last week: His 3,000-subscriber system suffered only a few fried amps and taps.
"If I was overhead, I'd still be out," he
said -- a victim of the worst fire in Volusia County history. Instead, he left with the
evacuation, "confident that I'd survive."
Undergrounding also mitigated damage to systems in the
planned community of Palm Coast. Palm Cablevision general manager Rosa Rosas said the
damage was bad enough: 10 miles of plant lost and 155 customers out in the 10,000-customer
system. Adjusters estimated the loss at $250,000, she added.
To keep the Flagler County community informed, Palm
Cablevision ran emergency-management information constantly -- except during evacuation --
on The Weather Channel. The system's local-access producers filmed a piece on the
aftermath July 9 and aired it the following day.
Rosas said workers' spirits are high, buoyed in part
by the generosity of parent Moffat Communications, a Canadian MSO. The company pledged to
pay non-reimbursed evacuation expenses for its employees, along with wages for the four
days that they were locked out of the system, Rosas said. Further, the company told one
employee who left the system for two weeks to fulfill his obligation as a volunteer
firefighter that he will collect full wages.
Other cable efforts included:
Volunteers from the central division of Time Warner
Communications aided professionals from the American Humane Association and Animal Planet
Rescue, an 80-foot disaster-relief vehicle. The rescuers moved animals out of harm's
way, then assisted in reuniting owners with their animals.
In Daytona Beach, where the Tele-Communications Inc.
cluster suffered minimal damage (again, the plant was underground), local executives will
try to organize a concert, both to benefit the community and as a "thanks" to
firefighters. The system is in talks with Country Music Television as a possible partner,
TCI spokesman Ed Garcia said.
Wilkerson also hosted a primetime special on the
fire, cablecast on Sunshine, which debuted July 12, focusing on the devastation that
already occurred and the danger that still exists.