Radio Stories – Indian Point and WABC or I’m writing as fast as I fucking can!
Many of us remember the days when the fire siren would go off at all hours of the day or night to call volunteers to the fire house to fight a fire. If you are of my generation, you will also remember the air raid sirens of the Cold War period of our childhood and the regular drills that happened when we were in school. Comedian Lewis Black has a very funny routine about how hiding under your wooden desk was going to save your life in event of a nuclear attack! Ah yes, the old duck and cover routine of our childhood. Over the years, other methods of warning and notice have taken over for those sirens and now it is almost odd when you hear them unless it’s a local 6:00 signal. One of the few places that still rely on siren warnings is the Indian Point Nuclear Plant in Buchanan, New York. There
is a grid work of 172 sirens in a 10 mile radius of the plant that would be activated to warn residents in the area of an emergency at the plant.
Although this system is no longer in effect, back in the 80s and 90s, based on the great signal that we put into the Hudson Valley, WABC Radio was designated as the Primary radio station for any disaster that might happen at the plant. As such, we were written into Indian Point and Westchester County disaster plans, and were a major part of any disaster drills. That also meant that we had a prime part to play in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s re-licensing of the plant in Buchanan, New York every five years, when one of the important tests for the plant was a working disaster plan.
WABC’s Chief Engineer, Bill Krause, had been involved in meetings for several weeks with Westchester Country Emergency Management, and with Safety Officers at Indian Point, in preparation for the disaster test which would be monitored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the NRC. On that day, a simulated emergency would take place at the Indian Point Nuclear Plant, which would cause Westchester County’s disaster plan to be put into effect. A call would be placed to WABC from Westchester Emergency Management with a simulated disaster message. Once we had verified the message, we were to broadcast an EBS alert on the radio, which would trigger the warning sirens around the plant, and prove to the monitors that the written plan worked, and would be effective in notifying area residents of a potential disaster.
Bill assigned me to be the point person at WABC, and before the day of the test, I was fully briefed on the entire procedure. The day of the test, I arrived at the ABC Building at 1330 6th Avenue at about 7AM. At 7:30 the test monitor from FEMA showed up, and as the test was scheduled to happen sometime between 8 AM and 12 noon, we settled down in Studio 8B to await the phone call. My instructions were very simple. The Indian Point Hot Line phone would ring and I would answer it. The caller would tell me that they were calling to notify me of an emergency at the Indian Point plant, and to start the process that would trigger an alert. At that point, I was to open the sealed envelope containing verification codes, and check that the caller had the correct code. If they did, I was to acknowledge the call and tell them that we were standing by for the emergency notification. That call would come a few minutes later and would contain a three paragraph message that I was to record, simulating what we’d do in an actual emergency. I was then to notify the studio that we had a verified emergency at Indian Point. At the next break in programming, WABC would air an EBS Test announcing it as a “Coordinated Indian Point Test,” which would trigger the sirens surrounding the plant. As long as all this happened within a 15-minute window from the time the first phone call was placed, the plan would have passed the test and Indian Point would be one step closer to being re-licensed. Sounded like a no brainier, and it should have been, but for one small glitch.
The person at Westchester Emergency Management did not place the call to WABC’s Indian Point Hotline which I was monitoring that morning, but rather to a backup number in the plan, the WABC Newsroom. On that particular morning, veteran newsman Tom Romano manned the WABC newsroom. If you called central casting and asked for a “Crusty New York Newsman” type character, Tom is exactly what you’d get. As this emergency was not real, and what we were doing at WABC that morning was a
simulation, only a handful of folks on the 8th Floor knew about it…Tom unfortunately was not one of the handful. When the call came in, Tom took a couple of minutes to find the verification code envelope and to verify the message. When the next call came with the three-paragraph message, Tom started to copy it down in long hand. As the caller read the message Tom kept stopping him and made him go back and repeat parts that he’d missed. When the caller expressed to Tom the need for this message to be broadcast within a 15-minute window, Tom’s retort was, “I’m writing as fast as I fucking can”. When Tom finished taking the message in, he then proceeded to type in up in triplicate. That took some time, as it was really a lengthy message with specific instructions for folks living near Indian Point. By the time he brought it into the air studio, over a half hour had passed since the first phone call came in.
Once the EBS message was not broadcast on WABC and the sirens didn’t trigger within the 15-minute window, all hell broke loose in Westchester’s Emergency Management Headquarters. A call was placed to Bill Krause at WABC asking what had happened, and included their version of the rather strange events that happened when they called WABC to trigger the test. Bill came into 8B where the FEMA Monitor and I had been having a nice conversation totally oblivious to what had been happening down in the Newsroom. As the emergency was only scheduled to happen sometime in the morning, we had no idea when to expect the call or that we’d missed the alert! When Bill relayed to me what the Westchester people had detailed to him, we quickly put two and two together and realized what happened. Of course, the test had been a miserable failure, and as such, put Indian Point’s re-licensing in jeopardy.
There was some fancy footwork and back peddling in the subsequent days, and lots of finger pointing meetings. Finally, the NRC and FEMA told Indian Point they’d give them one more chance, and a test was rescheduled for the next week. This time everything went off without a hitch, and the disaster plan was deemed to be successful, and one more hurdle was overcome in the re-licensing of Indian Point. WABC remained the primary broadcast station for Indian Point emergencies for many years after that, and we did many more simulated disaster tests that I was involved in as they went through the re-licensing process, and luckily it was only on the first test that we needed a re-do!