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For Traffic Advisories, Emergencies
NIH To Launch AM Radio Station 1610

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

By the end of this summer, NIH will join the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the Ft. McHenry Tunnel, National Airport and Bolling Air Force Base in that pantheon of facilities so robust and expansive that they require their own slot on the AM radio dial. Motorists and residents within about a 4-mile radius of the Bethesda campus will be able to tune to 1610 and get updates on traffic, parking, instructions in the event of an emergency or evacuation and NOAA weather reports.


"I am not trying to take Lisa Baden's job away from her," jokes Tom Hayden, a transportation planner in the Office of Research Facilities, referring to the popular rush-hour radio personality heard on Washington's WTOP.

A "WNIH"-type station has long been under consideration by NIH's parking committee, Hayden said, noting that the FCC is unlikely to issue those call letters for the campus's new 10-watt station. But the coming burst of new construction projects — including Bldg. 33 and its associated garage, not to mention the perimeter fence and other projects — will soon make it necessary to better manage the flow of traffic into and out of campus, as well as to direct employees to available parking areas throughout the campus.

Shown behind another recent campus installation — the new fence — a 49-foot antenna for NIH's AM radio station sits on a hillside along Rockville Pike.

Launching a radio station turns out to require surprisingly little in the way of hardware, Hayden explains. The primary "studio" will be a PC to which a microphone has been attached in the Division of Public Safety's Emergency Communication Center (ECC), backed up by a second unit, along with some special software.

A 49-foot antenna has already been installed on a hillside near the corner of Wilson Dr. and Rockville Pike. This location offers a maximum effective broadcast range of 4-6 miles. "That gets us to the major traffic corridors around campus," Hayden observes. There are plans to add "repeater" towers to the area near Rockledge Dr. and Executive Blvd., where NIH rents large office buildings. "These additional transmitters will give us access to the largest concentrations of employees off-campus," Hayden said. "We'll go ahead on that portion of the project after the first system is up and operating, and most of the bugs have been worked out."

Feeding information into the system will be a network already in place with the ECC, which is on duty 24 hours a day. Standard messages will be pre-recorded. After using the system and developing these standards, messages can be professionally recorded by a member of the Office of Communications and Public Liaison. The system is also capable of handling input from microphones in the two "studios" (Hayden's PC, and the main PC in the campus's ECC) as well as live feeds using phones. During "down time" when there are no special traffic advisories, the system will then switch automatically to the nonstop regional weather feed from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There will not be any advertisements or sports talk, however, because the law restricts the station from those types of commercial uses. However, campus events or even messages requesting blood donations could be included.

Working in concert with the NIH radio station is an array of three "variable message signs," which are portable traffic advisory billboards designed to be arranged strategically around the campus. "We can put those up in the bottleneck areas," said Hayden. There are also portable flashing beacon light units to attract the attention of drivers in case of emergency.

Location of the radio antenna offers a maximum effective broadcast range of 4-6 miles, which reaches the major traffic corridors around campus.

"Our goal is coordination, and to avoid giving conflicting messages," Hayden explained. "We also want to keep the system updated and current.

"We are also working closely with the Maryland State Highway Administration, which fully supports our program," said Hayden, noting that NIH will be working with the Maryland Chesapeake Highways Advisory Routing Traffic, or CHART, network that would coordinate major region-wide evacuations in the event of disaster. "The same North Carolina company (Highway Information Systems, Inc.) that's installing our system is also installing the District of Columbia's emergency evacuation system," which involves six radio towers around the city.

Regardless of what the station is eventually named, Hayden urges NIH'ers to become familiar with 1610 on the radio dial. "I was hoping they'd call it WTOM, but I doubt that will happen," he says.

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