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Two Storms, One Harrowing Night For MTPR Engineer

Lightning Photo: Courtesy of NOAA
Courtesy of NOAA
Two storms, one harrowing night for a MTPR engineer

August was a stormy month at Montana Public Radio. On the evening of August 10, when Missoula experienced a remarkable thunderstorm with hurricane level winds, the MTPR team was all hands on deck keeping the station on air. Then 11 days later, a lightning storm crashed both the primary and backup transmitters for Missoula’s 89.1 frequency, and one intrepid engineer had a harrowing night on the mountain.

August 10 Storm #1: Wind, Trees, All Hands On Deck
Joan Richarde was the evening news host, expertly announcing all the emergency alerts from the weather service. She put into use the recent severe weather alert training we had provided for station staff.

Charles Lubrecht, our retired engineer, recognized when the power went out at his home nearby, that the broadcast center was probably also dark. He arrived on the scene to keep the equipment running and the information flowing.

Tim Martin, our radio engineer, arrived just after Charles, and worked into the wee hours to keep all the computer servers cool.

As it became apparent that downed trees and power lines might keep on-air and news staff from getting to the station, a small dedicated team stayed on. They traveled up and down the dark hallways and out onto dark streets. Reporter Edward O’Brien, worked past midnight to get the storm story ready for the morning newscast. Back up generators kicked on to run the Missoula transmitter and studios.

The next morning, power to the University was cut, two of our servers crashed and our network equipment malfunctioned in a major way. The entire tech team worked for two days reprogramming hardware, swapping equipment and re-installing software.

On day three after the storm, the full staff reviewed what went well, what didn’t and how we could improve our emergency response process.

Jeff Croonenberghs, MTPR engineer recounts his night on the mountain dodging lightning and fire.
Credit Josh Burnham
Jeff Croonenberghs, MTPR engineer recounts his night on the mountain dodging lightning and fire.

Transmitter engineer Jeff Croonenberghs reported that the emergency generator for our transmitter atop Big Sky mountain had performed flawlessly, while some other equipment was compromised and had been replaced.

The next day a core group of staff, including the tech team, began testing an instant messaging application which was put to good use a week later.

August 21 Storm #2: Lightning, Fire and a Harrowing Night  
On this night, Jeff our transmitter engineer, was at the top of Big Sky mountain (above Snowbowl ski area), in the middle of the night, in a lightning storm, with a new wildfire burning nearby, working to get our signal back on the air. Clusters of rain and lightning storms thundered through the Missoula Valley knocking MTPR’s 89.1 FM signal off-air around 8:20 p.m.

We learned later from Jeff that there was no power on the mountain, and a lightning strike had crashed both the primary and auxiliary transmitters. The generator was running, but the transmitters were too stunned to respond.

Here’s a look at how the station’s technical team was updating the rest of the staff about the situation, via the instant messaging application we were testing:

8:21 p.m., Aug. 21, 2015 – Saxon (Technical Director): KUFM is off the air. Jeff is on the remote. Tim is on the way to the station.

9:10 p.m., Aug. 21, 2015 – Tim (Radio Engineer): Looks like the generator just didn't kick on. Power is currently down on 2 of 3 phases. Jeff is on his way up to the hill (Big Sky mountain). We're still on everywhere else including 91.5 in the Missoula valley.

10:21 p.m., Aug. 21, 2015 – Saxon: Transmitter Down. Remote reports only one leg of AC is up.

11:58 p.m., Aug. 21, 2015 - Jeff (Transmitter Engineer): Auxiliary transmitter up. 6kwatts.

1:00 a.m., Aug. 21, 2015 - Jeff: Primary transmitter up 5.5kwatts. One power amplifier down. Site on generator. No power on mountain. New fire east of site lightning started. Firefighters on Grantcreek side working that. Very Smoky on way down. Parts order on Monday.

2:30 a.m., Aug. 21, 2015 – Jeff: Home. 89.1 sounds good.

It’s not that unusual for Jeff to head up to a mountain-top transmitter site in a storm. He found out about the wildfire from another engineer that was on the way down the hill from a TV tower site. They both agreed it was alright to proceed, keeping a careful eye on the fire situation.

As he worked at the transmitter site, Jeff was assessing the smoke and wind, and looking for fire signs every 10 minutes. About 1:00 a.m., when the wind shifted and smoke was pouring over the top of the ridge, Jeff decided it was time to leave. The trip back down the mountain was the worst part of the event, navigating through blinding smoke on treacherous roads.

Our tech team works tirelessly to keep MTPR on the air, but in the rare case it’s not, remember Jeff, who might be on the way to the top of a mountain near you. Or think of the news crew putting in long hours to bring you daily coverage of issues that matter to Montana, plus all the storm and wildfire reports.

I’m really proud of our dedicated team here Montana Public Radio and I’d like to thank them for their phenomenal commitment to staying on air, getting the story, and sustaining the service for all of us who listen and rely on local public radio.

Linda Talbott, MTPR Interim Director

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