In the early morning of March 3, 2020, WCTE’s Production and Engineering teams showed up at the station to load trucks for a scheduled video shoot in Nashville. Driving into town, several employees noticed that power was out and the west side of Cookeville was dark. It had been storming, and soon one emergency vehicle after another was racing westward on Highway 70. No one knew, at that point, that an EF4 tornado had struck residential areas, causing massive damage and loss of life.
Just days before, WCTE engineers had tested the system that would allow local emergency management personnel and elected leaders to speak directly to Upper Cumberland residents from inside Putnam County’s Emergency Management Agency building. By 5 a.m. on March 3, County Executive Randy Porter, along with other emergency officials, was live on WCTE’s airwaves advising residents of the unthinkable situation. He provided hourly updates throughout the first couple days, advising about damaged areas to avoid, search and rescue efforts, food, shelter and other resources, along with community needs and volunteer opportunities.
The studio from which they spoke was constructed by a partnership between WCTE and Putnam County in 2018 and allows public officials (with station cooperation) to break into WCTE’s broadcast stream with live video during emergencies. The county had fully funded the project (about $15,000), relying on WCTE engineers for technical expertise, equipment selection and complete installation. During the tornado aftermath, the city and county mayor and other emergency management officials were able to begin broadcasting live within three hours of touchdown. Officials were able to be on air at short notice, without having to leave their vital posts in the emergency facility, without having to schedule a press conference. For a week, officials continued to broadcast at intervals during daylight hours. The signal went straight from the studio’s camera, through a robust IP encoder, over the internet and into WCTE’s joint master control.
After a couple weeks, tornado coverage had decreased to one daily live update and would have eventually ceased, but news about the COVID-19 outbreak began rolling in, and the daily updates began transitioning from tornado recovery to virus monitoring and messaging. Through May of 2020, Putnam County Mayor Porter and Cookeville Mayor Ricky Shelton continued to use the WCTE studio link to provide live updates to viewers at least twice a week, bringing in officials from the local hospital, Putnam County schools, relief agencies and others.