The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

May 5, 2013

Disaster drove quest for better communication

By Jean Cole

— 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.

Alternate voice

When cellphones failed on April 27, as they could in any disaster that incapacitates lines or cell towers, emergency responses were in a pickle. As a result, Limestone County bought five satellite telephones, which work when typical telephone towers and lines do not because they use satellites to transmit messages.

“What we learned on April 27 is that cellphones were down, and we had huge issues there because we were only able to text,” Chief Floyd Johnson said. Police must communicate to assign officers, call in off-duty officers and generally respond to the public. To address the problem, the City Council recently voted to hire SouthernLINC as a standby wireless service, if needed. This would allow police and other city officials to communicate with what are essentially walkie-talkies.

“SouthernLINC was the only communication continuously up and running after the tornadoes,” Johnson said.

Prepping for the worst

In preparing for the worst, police considered what might happen if the Police Department was damaged or destroyed. Through the EMA, they now can use a mobile command post that has a satellite uplink through which calls to police could be rerouted. They also considered what they would do if the computer servers at the Police Department were damaged, destroyed or somehow inaccessible. The City Council recently voted to fund virtual servers that would back up the servers at the department and allow them to access them from another location.

Preparing responders

Calhoun Community College is trying to create future emergency personnel who have practiced the art of responding to crises. Over the past three years, students studying emergency medical fields and nursing have practiced their response — along with police, fire and rescue, ambulance services and area hospitals — to a fake bus crash and, last month, to a fake mass shooting. After these mock events, everyone studies what worked, what didn’t work and what actions can be improved. These kinds of drills have been practiced by county emergency agencies, including fire, rescue and sheriff, for many years.