Column: For hurricane season, keep a hand-crank or battery-powered radio at the ready

Published June 28, 2018

All Floridians should have a battery-operated or hand-crank broadcast radio in their hurricane emergency supply kit. That's a key lesson I've learned from a career spent in public safety, including nearly eight years as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

It is easy for Americans to trust that their smart phone, the internet or pay-TV will be there when they need critical information when disaster strikes. Time and again, though, we see cellular networks go down or become congested. Our cable or satellite TV system is knocked offline. The power goes out and we are left in the dark, literally and figuratively.

That happened to me in Gainesville during Hurricane Irma — the power went out, taking out my cable and with it went the internet. My cellular data stopped working. Good thing I had a battery-powered radio. It was the only news source I had.

Last year was a wake-up call. Americans watched as Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas' Gulf Coast and caused unprecedented flooding. Hurricane Irma tore a path that left millions of residents in the dark from Florida up the Atlantic Coast. And, in Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands, Hurricane Maria caused devastation from which residents are still recovering and its effects may be felt for decades to come.

As we approach the heart of hurricane season, Americans should heed the lessons from last year and prepare themselves. And they need to know where to find live, local and detailed information during times of crisis. Knowing what is going on, where to find help and how to avoid trouble can make the difference between staying safe or getting caught in a dangerous situation.

That is why – from a career spent in public safety, including nearly eight years as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency – I believe all Americans should have a battery-operated or hand-crank broadcast radio in their emergency supplies. Local broadcasters remain our communities' most important "first informers," working closely with public safety officials at every level to keep Americans updated on the situation. During last year's hurricanes, local radio and TV stations went wall-to-wall with coverage, providing critical information about evacuation plans, places of aid for those in need and how to avoid disease for those stuck in their homes.

Yet, despite broadcast radio's role as a source of lifeline information, many Americans fail to include a broadcast radio in their emergency plans. Thankfully, an innovative feature can turn many smartphones into an FM radio receiver during times of emergency, without having to stream over the internet or waste excessive battery life.

Mobile devices have for years been manufactured with FM radio chips which, when paired with headphones acting as an antenna, allows users to tune to local radio broadcasts even when a cellular network goes down. Though a popular feature in the rest of the world, many wireless carriers in the United States kept these FM chips deactivated until relatively recently.

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The 2017 hurricanes showed radio-enabled smartphones can play a significant role in keeping people safe. Radio listenership on smartphones exploded in Texas and South Florida as hurricanes Harvey and Irma barreled down on the areas, allowing residents to use their mobile devices to get the latest updates about the storm from their local radio stations. In the Tampa Bay area, the NextRadio app — which enables over-the-air radio listening — had more than eight times more listeners on the Sunday before the storm hit than the previous week. Before a storm hits, test to see if your smartphone has this capability.

If you have an iPhone, you're out of luck.

While the rest of the wireless industry has recognized the public safety benefits of radio-enabled smartphones — and despite calls from newspapers, lawmakers and even the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission — Apple continues to resist this innovative public service.

Americans need more access to lifeline information when disaster strikes — information local radio stations provide day-in and day-out. I strongly urge Apple to do the right thing and equip iPhones with FM radio capability. In the meantime, have that radio ready.

Craig Fugate served as FEMA administrator from May 2009 to January 2017. Previously, he served as Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's Emergency Management director from 2001 to 2009.