The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Local News

May 5, 2013

Disaster drove quest for better communication

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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.

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