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In the midst of the CBC lockout, Michael Fleury looks into its emergency broadcasting plan and the role of private radio.

With the CBC lockout entering its sixth week, woeful fans have had plenty of time to assess what they miss the most from their public broadcaster. Because regional branches of CBC Radio are shut down across the country, original local programming has all but disappeared from the airwaves while day-to-day operations are handled out of CBC’s head offices in Toronto. That alone has been enough to frustrate devoted listeners.

But some fear a scenario even worse than the constant re-runs. In the event of a regional emergency, how well could a bare bones CBC respond? At the lockout blog, a message from one concerned Halifax resident—identified only as Paul—worries that the CBC would be too disabled to provide essential emergency information.

“When Hurricane Juan hit Halifax two years ago, it was CBC Radio that warned us. It was CBC Radio that kept us informed during that week without electricity that followed. It was CBC Radio that saved lives; that gave us hope; that became a keystone in emergency planning for public communication during a time of disaster,” he says. “Without CBC Radio, what happens to my family, friends and community if the east coast gets hit by a Juan-force hurricane again this year?”

Jason MacDonald is a spokesperson for the CBC still working in the national headquarters in Toronto. Although reluctant to get into details, MacDonald says a contingency plan is in place in case of a major regional emergency.

“We’re well aware that that’s one of the things that people turn to us for in a time of crisis,” he says. “Is it the way we would do it if we weren’t in a lockout situation? I think the answer is no. But we’ve made sure that we have other alternatives open to us so that people can at least turn to the CBC for essential information.”

Although the coverage might not achieve the level of depth that it did during a crisis like Juan (many will recall Don Connolly’s marathon nine-hour overnight session, broadcast live during the brunt of the storm), MacDonald is quick to point out that CBC does have a contact in the region to provide information to the broadcaster, rather than running the coverage exclusively out of Toronto.

“Right now, we’ve got somebody on the ground with whom we’ve established a line of communication so if and as things unfold, we’ll be getting constant updates and continue to keep the audience appraised of what’s happening, provide take-cover warnings,” he explains. “We’ll do what we can with the resources that we’ve got.”

Back in Halifax, Rick Howe isn’t concerned about the CBC’s emergency response. As the news director for both CJCH and C100, he has his own coverage to worry about. Howe says that the lockout has done little to change the routine in his newsroom, and he would approach emergency coverage in the same way.

“We’re a private broadcaster, but our responsibility is no different from the CBC, in an emergency situation especially,” he says. “We don’t have any less of a responsibility to serve the people in the event of a public emergency, not at all.”

If the public did have any concerns about gaps in emergency coverage during the CBC lockout, Howe says that they should be aware that many private broadcasters are just as committed to providing thorough coverage during a crisis.

“We’ve handled some pretty big stories over the years from Westray to SwissAir, Juan to White Juan. We’ve got some pretty experienced people manning the fort,” he says. “If there is any, we can pick up the slack. No question, never a doubt in my mind.

“And it’s something we’re prepared to do. We’re very much a local station, and locals are our bailiwick. We ignore serving the people at our own peril.”

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