The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

October 26, 2011

First responders work to improve communications after storms

By Jean Cole
jean@athensnews-courier.com

ATHENS — In the wake of the April 27 tornadoes, Limestone County law-enforcement agencies decided to improve their ability to communicate in the event of a future disaster.

One official says an entire, new digital communication system is the best way to go in the future.

Limestone County Sheriff

“We’ve got satellite phones for me and my supervisors,” Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely said.

After the storm struck that afternoon, communicating by cellphone was extremely difficult or impossible, the sheriff said, either because cellphone towers were downed or damaged or overloaded with calls, the sheriff said.

With satellite telephones, officers will still be able to communicate should another disaster strike.

The department also changed providers for its cellphones, which double as walkie-talkies, choosing to go with SouthernLINC Wireless.

The Limestone County Commission approved a grant Oct. 18 to provide communications equipment to county agencies. The Department of Homeland Security will pay 75 percent, or $27,179, of the grant for emergency management , with the county providing a 25 percent match, or $9,059.

Athens Police

Athens Police Department was able to maintain radio communication after the storm, mainly because it had backup power, Capt. Floyd Johnson said.

“We did have some issues with a repeater failing and it took time to get that straightened out,” he said. “Our cellphones went down.”

Johnson said the department is devising a broad plan to provide better communication in the future.

"We are looking at funding for new equipment and also for improving what we have, so we can be prepared for the next time,” he said. “We haven’t made any new purchases yet but we are in the planning stages, working with other departments and the mayor to address the worst-case scenarios."

He said the department has been working with Limestone County Emergency Management Agency and the Athens Fire Department along the way.

Athens Fire Department

But the solution to Limestone County’s emergency communications is to go to a full digital communication system, said Athens Fire Chief Danny Southard. Currently, the fire departments in Limestone County are UHF and Athens Fire is VHF.

“Our biggest issue was that the area we were working in southeast Athens and eastern Limestone County were the furthest-possible distance from our fixed repeaters,” Southard said.

This made their walkie-talkies virtually unusable, he said, though the mobile radios in their trucks still worked.

To remedy the problem, the department applied for a Homeland Security grant through the EMA and, a couple of weeks ago, obtained six mobile repeaters that will be mounted on the apparatus and command vehicles. This will also help them when they are inside a metal building or a hospital, Southard said.

Yet, the chief sees this fix as merely a Band-Aid. The solution is for all emergency services to switch to digital.

“I believe Athens and Limestone County should go to a unified 800 or all-digital radio system, but it would cost millions of dollars,” Southard said.

He said Huntsville and Madison upped its 911 fees to pay for digital infrastructure and Limestone could do the same but the various agencies would still have to find the money for the communication gear. However, all of the communication would operate when it is needed, whether it is a mobile radio or a handheld unit.

“That is the future of emergency communication,” Southard said.