During last November’s Woolsey Fire, Malibu’s only local radio station, KBUU, broadcast critical fire information all night long, but was finally silenced at 8:45 a.m. when the lines burned up. What should have been a crucial source of information to the community in the following week was forced to remain off the air until Nov. 16. Broadcasting was only able to resume with gas-powered generators, requiring as many as three trips up a mountain daily. 

Now, with Malibu Foundation funding, KBUU is operating on solar power and taking the lead in setting up emergency communications for Malibu High School (MHS) and City Hall.

“I want to make sure you know we’re just starting these projects, and some of this is very preliminary,” KBUU General Manager Hans Laetz wrote to TMT in an email. “We don’t want to promise more than we can deliver.” That being said, he hopes to have all four phases of a planned emergency communications project completed by November.

Phase one, which consists of getting KBUU on solar power, is built and working. 

“We received a grant from the Malibu Foundation and installed solar panels and batteries at the FM transmitter site. We took the station off the air for 30 seconds last Thursday to switch over to the new circuits,” Laetz wrote. On Friday, Aug. 16, they began charging the solar batteries in the sunlight, and then switched over to 100 percent solar power. They continued testing for four or five days to ensure the system was working properly with the solar batteries recharging. 

“We’ve burned about 3,200 gallons of gas to stay on the air since Nov. 16,” Laetz wrote. “Nothing will be better than getting off the grid and going solar.”

In addition to the transmitter site, KBUU also has four communications locations (relay stations) in Malibu. “All four are on batteries or solar now, with at least four days capacity after a blackout starts. By end of the year, all four will be on solar batteries and off the grid,” Laetz stated.

Phase two of the emergency communications project, also funded by Malibu Foundation, has already begun. The goal is to establish a new microwave data link from Santa Monica High School (Samohi) to MHS. Laetz and his engineer conducted a series of microwave signal tests last Friday in Malibu and Santa Monica. “So far, so good,” he said.

“MHS, like the rest of Malibu, is vulnerable to loss of phones and internet when Southern California Edison turns off the power in Santa Anas,” Laetz continued. “KBUU and our friends at Rancho Del Cielo can provide them a microwave relay site at the KBUU transmitter, 825 feet above sea level, near Paradise Cove. We hope to have a 100 mbs (megabits per second) signal pathway set up between MHS and Santa Monica High in 30 days—powered with solar panels and batteries. Samohi will connect that to the outside internet.”

Phase three of the proposed emergency communications plan will be to extend the system to Malibu City Hall to give the city emergency operations center access to the outside internet during power outages, and to connect Malibu’s two elementary schools. The city can’t make a final decision until they receive a feasibility study.

“It’s critical that City Hall have a solar/battery connection to the outside world in case a blackout or downed power pole takes out their internet and internet-based phone system,” Laetz wrote. “This will be a bit tricky, and will require a small relay antenna on the roof of the maintenance shed at Bluffs Park, but it’ll be very low-profile antenna—no tower.”

Phase four of the plan will be to install a pair of KBUU boosters to improve reception of FM 99.1, particularly in the Civic Center area, eastern Malibu and far western Malibu—so that the station can be heard everywhere in the city. This requires FCC approval, and KBUU is currently in the engineering review stage in Washington, DC. 

Boosting the signal will require a 19-watt broadcast transmitter at the Malibu Bluffs Park maintenance shed and an antenna on the roof. “Again, very low profile—no tower or lights or any significant visual intrusion,” Laetz wrote. “We’ll look just like the raptor pole the city just put there. In fact, we may swap out the raptor pole with our antenna and give the birds a nice KBUU place to park. City council approval is needed, of course.”

“The Malibu Foundation is underwriting the substantial construction projects and paying for the contract engineers and electricians, plus our legal fees at the FCC,” he continued. “They’re supporting ways to harden the entire fire-ravaged area—not just Malibu—against the effects of global warming.”

“KBUU listeners and our handful of underwriters are paying for the station’s day-to-day costs, like music rights, software, and computers. We have 12 volunteers and none of us are paid,” Laetz reminded residents. 

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