The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Local News

May 5, 2013

Disaster drove quest for better communication

— Better communication was the lesson learned in Athens and Limestone County following the tornadoes of 2011 and 2012. But, the lesson also translates to any future crises that should occur here, officials said.

“We learned a lot about how critical our communication links are in times of natural disasters like the tornadoes of April 27 (2011) and March 2 (2012),” Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks said. “Particularly on April 27, when we could only get through by texting because so many lines were down.”

Since then, city officials have joined with the Limestone County Emergency Management Agency and department heads within the city of Athens, including police and fire, in workshops and meetings to improve future response.

“Less than a month ago, we met specifically about our roles and how we organize ourselves, from the city standpoint, during the critical hours,” Marks said. “We have even had a practice session.”

What officials have learned, foremost, is that one can never be totally prepared, the mayor said.

Devil in the details

Public Works Director James Rich, fire and police offices have talked about their roles and one staffer has been assigned to various emergency-management target areas. We looked at splitting up the county into regions 1-4 and how all of the various departments and agencies will respond to those areas should another disaster or crisis occur.”

The mayor said these groups have met over the past several years and as late as three weeks ago.

“We had to decide details, like who responds to get a backhoe to an area,” Marks said. “ Who responds when there are hot lines down in four or five different places. You don’t want to send all your power trucks in one direction (in case more reports come in from elsewhere.)”

Updating the masses

When the new City Hall is erected by next year, Marks also plans to designate a staging area — a place for media and others to go to receive updates several times a day from police, fire, EMA or Public Works officials. Among the problems that arose during the April 27 tornadoes were the many media outlets trying to reach officials at the very moment they were most busy.

“When we are trouble shooting, we don’t have time to talk to you but we need to let people know what is going on out there,” Marks said.

Another problem that needed to be solved was how to inform residents living in areas where power has been cut that the utility is already aware of the outage and give them the status of repairs. When lines are down in an area, calls flood Athens Utilities, as expected. By installing an automated system, the utility is now able to provide this information.

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