The Tower and the almost Inferno

Broadcast engineers generally enjoy a certain amount of crisis. Most like being resourceful and switching to battle mode when there is a serious problem that threatens to keep the stations off the air. It's a good way to test one's mettle. When a fire left the Lotus Communications stations in Los Angeles in peril, Chief Engineer John Cooper had the opportunity to test his mettle as a broadcast engineer.

Lotus Communications owns three stations in the Los Angeles area. KWKW-AM 1330 is a 5kW Spanish-language talk-format radio station that simulcasts on its sister station KWKU-AM 1220. KWKW serves the Spanish-language segment of Southern California's population and is the Spanish voice of the LA Lakers, Dodgers, Sparks and Chivas. KIRN-AM 670, Radio Iran is America's first commercial Iranian-language station serving another segment of the multi-cultural Los Angeles area.

KWKW, KWKU and KIRN studios were on the 6th and 15th floors in a landmark building at Hollywood's Sunset and Vine. The building was a 20-story high-rise that offered a breathtaking view of the LA basin from its 360 Club on the top. The building, memorialized in the 1974 disaster film Earthquake, is on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.

On Dec. 6, 2001, disaster really struck the so-called Earthquake Tower when the main electrical room in the basement was destroyed by fire. The building was built in 1964 and didn't have many electrical backups and improvements that are required today. Although the building was structurally sound and all the electrical and plumbing was fine, the entire building was evacuated. Everything was destroyed at the main building electrical bottleneck meaning no elevators, no lighting, no non-battery emergency lights. The building was dark — except for the stations. The radio stations were operating from their own generator without a hitch. Proper disaster planning had kept the station from suffering a debilitating shutdown — almost.

The transformer vault is accessed through this underground opening.

Because the building had no elevators, lights or life-safety electricity, the fire chiefs would not let the station personnel remain inside and work within the spaces operating on the generator. Cooper got to work. First he instructed the station producers, announcers and whoever would help to retrieve all the mixers, cables, microphones and remote equipment they could carry down 15 flights of stairs. This equipment would be needed to set up temporary studios. The fire chief allowed them one visit to get the equipment. At the same time, Cooper worked with the fire chief and inspectors to allow him to use the building if he could secure a generator large enough to support all building emergency lighting, life-safety equipment and at least one elevator. He then found and ordered a 1,500kW generator that would suffice.

Unfortunately, the stations were not out of the woods yet. The fire inspectors reconsidered their previous decision. They could not allow the building to be occupied because too much of the electrical feeder equipment was destroyed and was considered unsafe. The fire chief allowed the station one more trip into the building before sealing it. Again more salvageable equipment was brought down including 105 computers, which would serve the studios and sales departments of all the stations. This included the Audisk automation computers.

Back to plan A

Cooper packed as much equipment as he could fit into vehicles and started a long drive to the KWKU city of license, Pomona, CA, to begin operating KWKW and KWKU from their main studios. He used the equipment at that studio along with remote equipment and an Audisk system to get the station back on the air and operating with all programs, including commercials, within six hours of the fire.

KIRN didn't have a separate studio location like KWKW so Cooper had to be more creative with his solution. The stations leased space from an uplink/translator site in the west San Fernando Valley. The landlord had a small studio at this location, which also served as an uplink facility for DirecTV. The landlord allowed KIRN to use this remote location as its studio. More remote equipment and another automation system were quickly wired and LA's Radio Iran was on the air again within 24 hours after the disaster.

The new studio space is being prepared for the early 2003 move-in.

This was sufficient to get the stations back on the air for the short term. Unfortunately, the damage at the Sunset Vine Tower was significant so reoccupation of the space was not going to be soon in coming, if ever. The challenge now was to find a home for the studios and offices of the station for an extended period of time.

Just a block down Vine Street, at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, Hispanic Broadcasting had just vacated its studios, which housed the historic 10Q radio station. Lotus quickly made arrangements to lease the space and use whatever equipment and furnishings that were left to make a temporary home for all three stations. Fortunately, the facilities included raised studio flooring, furniture, racks and infrastructure sufficient to serve the stations. All available consoles, mixers, cables and microphones that could be acquired were installed. Core drilling through 20 floors was necessary for all the cables needed. Six hundred telephone pairs were run in addition to the more than 200 pairs already in place for the HBC stations. Within a month's time, 105 employees of Lotus Communications' LA stations had a new home and were back to normal production and broadcasting.

Still more to come

There were more trials to be had. Access would be limited for a significant time while legal hassles, liabilities and even criminal neglegence issues were being settled. Lotus decided that it would be best to be in control of its own facilities and purchased a building overlooking the Hollywood Hills near Universal Studios. This building has facilities for 11,500 square feet of new station space per floor. Lotus is preparing the space for a January or February 2003 move-in. The new location has also presented an opportunity for the station to install a nearly turnkey studio using routers, consoles, components and systems provided and built by Wheatstone.

Thomas is a contract engineer in Los Angeles and chief technology officer of Stratosaudio.

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