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Disaster Preparedness 2011: Technology in place and ready when it matters most

Lance Marrow

Although historians may characterize 2011 differently than I do, I believe that many in the government and public safety arena likely will remember this as the “Year of the Natural Disaster.” From the unparalleled Japanese tsunami to wildfires and tornadoes that literally destroyed entire communities and droughts that plagued many parts of the United States, we have come face-to-face with natural disasters of epic proportions. 

Recently, I had an opportunity to reflect on the experiences of two outstanding individuals, who were on the frontlines of disaster management this year. Each of them shared their story with our company, and while they are Motorola Solutions customers, I believe that their experiences speak to the universal need for disaster preparedness and mitigation, and the importance of applying the right technology know-how for the next inevitable crisis.

Shawn Scott

Fire Marshal/Emergency Management Coordinator

Parker County, TX

From hurricanes to floods and fires, Shawn Scott has led a number of disaster mitigation efforts, most recently in an effort to combat wildfires in a 60-square mile territory surrounding Possum Kingdom Lake, TX, a remote area west of Fort Worth that needed radio coverage to ensure communication between public safety officials involved in the disaster’s management. 

Texas was suffering the worst drought conditions in more than 100 years, and without the usual spring rains, vegetation had dried out. Combined with a strong, dry north wind, conditions were ripe for wildfires, including the Possum Kingdom fire which burned more than 156,000 acres and 200 homes. To combat the fires, and in concert with the Texas Department of Public Safety, Scott set up a site-on-wheels, providing a mobile command post to cover the area and relay critical information back to area command some 50 miles away. 

With Motorola infrastructure, including a Project 25 digital VHF Trunk System, Scott and his team were able to cover a significant geographical area. While the mobile facility was integral to disaster communications, it also provided a place for the command staff -- comprised of different divisions -- to gather and develop a plan. Scott remembered that staff was able to hang maps on a wall; and look at satellite photos showing subdivisions, roads and other detail needed to combat the fires. Beyond that, the truck provided a place for the command staff of those different divisions to congregate and come up with a plan.

Scott said the success of the disaster plan was due in large part to the interoperability and usability of disparate systems that often must work together in times of disaster. Because of Parker County’s rural landscape, a mobile site on wheels is key to ensuring real-time communications. Scott calls the mobile site “a real asset that we can share with anyone who needs it.”

Wade Buckner

Fire Chief

Jacksonville, AL

Chief Buckner recalled the April 27 epic Alabama tornado that devastated nearby communities, but left his unscathed. When disaster struck that night, he deployed Calhoun County’s Anniston Fire Department’s urban search and rescue team, along with his EMS units and a couple of sister fire chiefs to provide assistance in Webster Chapel, a nearby community that sustained heavy damage. 

In the April disaster, Buckner and his team relied heavily on their 14-year-old sea-set 800 MHz Motorola trunking system, used now for emergency preparedness. In transforming the use of the system for emergencies, all local agencies and responders have had an opportunity to join the system, which has now grown to cover two counties and provides interoperability through common channels. 

Buckner said that some local agencies were not part of the system when the tornado struck, and the disparate channels prevented real-time communication initially, overwhelming the 9-1-1 operations during a critical time. He and his team were able to convert the communications system in one of the hardest hit areas to the 800 MHz system to ensure quicker and more reliable communication between agencies. 

Calhoun County’s mobile command post was set up in the fire station to provide effective communications to call in resources throughout the state, taking much of the burden off local dispatchers. Later, Motorola provided its mobile site on wheels command center which was quickly deployed, first as a high-tech repeater site and later as a trunking site, thus filling a gap of coverage that existed previously for emergency management. 

Buckner told us that he had as many as 30 agencies on the radio system at one site and believes that the two-county system is a springboard for a statewide communications system to be utilized in broader scale disasters.

Looking to the future

Public safety disaster preparedness and mitigation has evolved quickly in recent years. I’m encouraged by an increasing desire for collaboration by agencies, as I believe they see the power in combined efforts to protect and serve their citizens. No one can predict when the next natural disaster will strike, but we can do our best to plan for the inevitable, and to ensure that the best individuals and communications systems are in place. 

Lance Marrow is regional sales manager for Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi for Motorola Solutions. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

 

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