Wave goodbye:

HDTV and Emergency Management

Ray J. Vaughan, MS

Last update: Tuesday September 16, 2008

The next time you wrap up an emergency at your EOC, and you’re in your last press conference, do me a favor. Wave goodbye to your public. This may be the last time they see you for quite a while.


Technology must move forward. And we’re about to take a step forward that’s going to leave Emergency Management a step behind. For the first time in many many years, we’re not going to be able to visually communicate with the public after a disaster. This change is an unexpected side effect of the move toward Digital and High Definition TV.

Unless a new Congress slows it down, Television as we know it goes off the air February 17, 2009. But even if there’s a delay, at some point, analog TV goes away. What goes away with it?

No doubt about it, HDTV is impressive. The video resolution is so much better than anything we had in the analog world. But with the rush to sell 65” projection sets and 42” Plasma and LCD sets, the smaller (and less expensive) end was forgotten.  The real technology change is going from Digital to Analog.  High Definition is possible with Digital transmission, but Digital doesn't necessarily mean HD.  Much of the programming over DTV is Low Definition.  But it's still digital and not compatible with older TV sets.

At this point, in November of 2006, there are NO portable Digital TVs, no battery operated Digital TVs. In fact, many of Digital TVs on the market today are technically monitors, not receivers. There is no tuner to receive local Digital TV signals in the TV.

Those pushing the rapid demise of Analog TV often mention converter boxes to allow consumers to continue using their Analog TVs after the cut off date. Unfortunately, these converters are also missing from store shelves.

And just because Analog is going away in 27 months doesn’t mean you can’t by an Analog TV today. Yes, they’re still being sold. So right now someone in your community is buying brand new TV that won’t work in just over 2 years.

So, fast forward 27 months. You’re in your press room, giving a briefing. Who’s watching?

The cable TV is likely out. This just killed all the cable boxes that people are using as their HDTV down converter. Those who usually watch local stations on their little satellite dish are still looking to see where it landed. Oh, wait, I know, we’ll hook the old TV antenna to the new HDTV. Good plan, but chances are that if it’s an HD Monitor, there’s no antenna connector. Even if it was, there’s a good chance it was an NTSC (old analog standard) tuner and all it sees today is snow. Since the HD modulation standard over the air is different than cable which is different than satellite, you can’t just connect your antenna to the input of your cable or satellite box.

Let’s say the promised HDTV to analog converters appear on the scene. How many of them will work on batteries? I suspect none. But I hope to be proved wrong. At the very least, it and the HDTV portable will be using more batteries than the old analog $99 portable TV.

How about watching TV in the car? Yes, many cars are coming with DVD screens. A few with analog receivers. I still haven’t seen any with mobile HDTV receivers.

I’m sure you know what part of your population will be the last to get HDTV. The same part that needs the most help and is most likely to have trouble evacuating. Think about the impact of this economic disadvantage.

Another thing that goes away: In many markets, an Analog Channel 6 can be heard on 87.7 on the FM band. When the analog TV station goes dark, 87.7 must also go silent.

What will communicating in this non-visual world be like? Think Radio. Theater of the mind. Consult with classic radio news broadcasters. They have developed the skills to relate the visual in words. You picture the Hindenburg crashing as you hear the famous ‘oh the humanity’ newscast. You’ve seen it hundreds of times. But the people of the day had only that verbal description to go on. Don’t know if it will be effective? Watch the classic movie “War of the Worlds” and see if the public of the time could be motivated by radio. But don’t underestimate the changes you’ll need to make, and your listeners will need to make, to go back to this old medium.

You’ll need to learn to describe things better. Play back some of your air checks from other disasters with your eyes closed. While the radar was on the screen did you say something like ‘as you can see…’ Or more like ‘as the storm approaches from the east’. How will you show jammed evacuation routes verbally? We see bumper to bumper traffic. We hear ‘traffic is moving at less than 5 MPH.’

Even the classic non-verbal cues, like hand gestures are lost in radio. The smile you give when things are under control has to come out in your voice instead.

Always be aware that while you see the facts, the public will imagine something far worse. Fairly describe the damage you’re showing. “The houses we’re showing now have many roof tiles missing but they appear habitable” sounds a lot better than “Just look at the roof damage”.   Also try to avoid long periods of silence while everyone absorbs something on the video.  Your listeners will get the 'what am I missing' feeling even faster. 

Also keep in mind what everyone is hearing from other sources. When you monitor local media between press conferences, include the local radio outlets. After 2009, the percentage of those listening to radio will be way up. The radio stations simulcasting TV stations will likely have more confused listeners. They’ve been putting up with the TV guys saying ‘look at this’ for hours. The radio stations with their own reporters will likely have better verbal descriptions and therefore, in theory, may be better partners.

How will you communicate with your hearing impaired citizens? Hope the cellular networks are still up and have barebones text web page they can access with their Sidekick or other text/cellphone devices. This group may have the most to lose with the loss of analog TV.   If you're still thinking TDD, you need to catch up to the current technology to reach them.

If you think this is all happening too fast, I think you’re right. In 1985, in the UK, the BBC shut down an older, outdated TV standard. (note 1) The last TV made on that standard was sold in 1948. Even with 40 years to upgrade, people still complained and were left without TVs.

Suggestions for the future:

More information about HDTV and the future of Analog is available at the FCC's web site:  http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/digitaltv.html

The author of this paper, Ray J. Vaughan, has a Bachelors and Masters degree in Telecommunication Management from Barry University in Miami.   He is also a certified Broadcast and Telecommunication Engineer and holds an FCC General Radio Telephone License.   He works professionally in Telecommunications for a large County Public Safety and Emergency Management Department.  He is also a Communications Specialist (COM-S) in FEMA, Urban Search & Rescue.

Note 1:  From Wikipedia's history of the British 405 line system and Chronomedia, a time line to show how quickly another TV standards change came to be:

There were still some left without TV when the 405 standard went dark.  A similar comparison for the US can not be made because the current 525 line NTSC Analog receivers are backwards compatible with even the very early 1940 NTSC US TV transmitters.   The current conversion to Digital TV is our first such revolution.  But this comparison to the British 405 to 625 upgrade may show that the US plan to quickly shut down Analog TV is not well supported by history.   Does anyone have another wide-spread, mandatory, technological revolution to compare to?

So, what about the homes have HDTVs now?   Unfortunately, that doesn't mean they're all getting a Digital TV signal. 

"Paxton revealed that about 60 percent of the 25 million U.S. households that own an HDTV set do not receive HD programming from terrestrial broadcasters, cable, satellite, IPTV or other sources"  http://broadcastengineering.com/hdtv/in-stat-hd-disconnect/  and more here:  http://broadcastengineering.com/hdtv/hd-service-fewer-hdtv/

If the analog stations signed off tomorrow, we would lose 60% of the homes that did upgrade to HDTV along with 100% of the homes that didn't upgrade.  It appears the FCC is only looking at the sold numbers, not the connected numbers.   For the public to be able to see us after 2009, we'll need them to have HDTVs AND a survivable source of digital TV signals.

Steven C Kovacs, KO4E, of Miami, Florida writes on Feb. 17, 2007:

"In exactly two years from today (February 17, 2009) the regular analog TV stations that you have been watching since TV's have been available to the public will be turned OFF. That date is 16 days after the Super Bowl, 28 days after the next presidential inauguration, 103 days before the 2009 Hurricane Season. Every full-power TV station in the land will need to turn off its traditional analog signal and send all programs over the air as digits. 73 million analog only TV's still working will go dark without a digital to analog converter box. In November I went looking for one of these converter boxes and found they where all priced over $200.00. The plan is to give consumers a coupon for $40 but that still leaves $160 to make my $150 TV work. The bigger problem is for the many people that have a portable battery operated TV for emergencies, power outages, and most important Hurricane Information during and after a storm. There is NO portable TV available that receives the digital
channels that I can find. If I do find one will it cost more than a generator?  When this years storms season comes around be sure to tell everyone you know not to buy a portable TV that is analog only since it will be useless within two years. I understand the wish to switch to all digital but I think there is going to be a HUGE public outcry when it happens since most of the public does even understand what is coming. In fact few TV sold before January 2006 where capable of receiving the digital channels."
  (as posted at SoFlaHams.com)

NTIA releases converter box coupon program details  $40 off an unknown price.

NTIA D-to-A Converter Box Rules 

As analog shutoff nears, blame game continues  Broadcast Engineering Jun 25, 2007 10:00 AM

Ray        (added 8/29/2007).

I was under the impression that subscribers to cable and DISH/Direct TV services do not need an analog-digital converter, only those who receive their television signals "over the air" require the box. Is this not correct?

If so, I suggest you clearly point that out and clarify whether or not the 73 million sets which will go dark are those with over the air reception or ????

Other than that, your points are well taken.

Bill Hendley

Ray Answers: 

The FCC regulates and is shutting down the Over-the-Air Broadcast signals.   So, you're totally correct.   DISH, DirecTV and your local Cable TV can continue to operate Analog as long as they wish.   Their equipment outputs either analog Channel 3 or 4, or analog baseband signals that your old analog TV can accept.  So you're right, these devices will continue to work after the cutoff.   We don't know how long they'll keep the analog outputs, but I'm sure it will be for many years after the analog broadcast goes dark.  Their motivation will be economic, not regulatory. 

BUT, in a disaster, would you expect any of these non-broadcast systems to work?   Rain effects satellite service.  Storms take down cable lines and twist dishes out of alignment.  Cable systems need utility power all along their trunk lines.   Most companies do not have generators at these power supplies.  Many do have batteries for a few hours of service but after that, nothing. 

And... when you're power at home goes out, will you be able to power the cable or satellite box?   They won't work on batteries.   You need these boxes to get the non-broadcast signals. 

Also keep in mind that many Cable TV and Satellite TV households also have OTHER TVs in the home that count on over-the-air signals.   While the Living Room might have the full satellite package, there's a good chance the Kitchen TV still has rabbit ears.  These extra sets seem to be ignored in the numbers we're seeing in the media. 

Thirteen million households unprepared for DTV transition, Nielsen says  broadcastengineering.com

"More than 13 million analog-only TV households today are unprepared for the DTV transition, and another 6 million households have at least one set that won’t work after analog transmission is shut off in February 2009, according to The Nielsen Company."

Check the article to see which groups are getting left behind. 

Dear Mr. Vaughan,

Well that answers my question. My 5" black and white TV with 9 D-cell batteries got me through hurricane Isabel a few years back. Alone and in the dark, it sure did offer a degree of comfort and a sense of connection with the rest of the city. I think it is unconscionable for the government to rush this change. The ability to communicate in emergency situations should take precedence over a clearer picture on a technologically "advanced" TV that a lot of us can't afford, and don't even want in the first place. Seems to me that maintaining some sort of analog capabilities is a no brainer. Hopefully, our government will reconsider and put the safety and well being of its' citizens first.

D. Flynn
Glen Allen, VA

Copps to Martin: The DTV devil is in the details

Sep 16, 2008 8:00 AM   Broadcasting Engineering 

This paper is a work in progress. I welcome your feedback, comments and especially your suggestions for the future. Please e-mail me at ray@rayvaughan.com . Let me know if I may add your comments here, and with or without credit to you.  I would like to present this at a conference related to Emergency Management Communication.

Last update: 09/16/2008    Hit Counter