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Communications Technology Key to Disaster Preparation

Author: Lance Marrow, Regional Sales Manager, Motorola Solutions

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-11-23
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Vendor's Corner
Guest Column

From a weather perspective, 2011 has been nothing short of a disaster, from tornadoes in the South and Midwest to Texas wildfires, historic fall snowstorms, and earthquakes in historically unfamiliar territory.  As such, emergency responders have been faced with new challenges, as they’ve worked diligently to protect the public.  In our case, we have been laser-focused on communications technologies, systems and devices – watching closely to see how the systems have performed, and what lessons we may learn for the future.

Recently, Motorola Solutions had an opportunity to speak with two of our customers who were on the front lines of very different natural disasters that grabbed headlines this year.  We wanted to hear their stories first-hand to ensure that we are meeting the current demands of first responders throughout the country, as well as anticipating their needs in coming years.  Most importantly, we were curious about the key learnings that we and our counterparts in the public safety community might take away from our conversations.

Chief Wade Buckner, Fire Chief in Jacksonville, Alabama, recalled the devastating tornadoes that touched down in his state in April.  Chief Buckner and his team were faced with multiple challenges in the aftermath of the storms, most notably the lack of an interoperable radio system to connect disparate first responder and public safety communications. 

Meanwhile, Shawn Scott, the Fire Marshal/Emergency Management Coordinator in Parker County, Texas, was challenged with an altogether different kind of threat to the citizens of his area:  wildfires that consumed acres of Texas prairie already plagued with a historic drought.  Scott reflected on this challenge and his history in deploying his team in advance of hurricanes. 

Based on my conversation with both men, I share some challenges and learnings that I think are important for the first responder and public safety community:

  • Challenge:  When the tornadoes struck Alabama earlier this year, public safety and first responders found it difficult to communicate because all three were dispatched on the same UHF channel, which quickly overwhelmed the 911 system. 
  • Learning:  Convert one of the systems to an existing 800 MHz system with a different dispatch format, and set up a command post to provide effective communications to call in resources throughout the state, to take the burden off of local dispatchers. 
  • Challenge:  Lack of coverage in remote areas of Alabama affected by the tornadoes. 
  • Learning:  Deploy a communications site on wheels, to transition from a high-tech repeater site into a full trunking site to provide microwave uplink to the existing system.  The mobile system stayed in place for several weeks following the disaster to provide coverage for a gap in the system. 
  • Challenge:  Whether wildfires or hurricanes, the length of disaster mitigation varies from one instance to another, and no two timetables are ever the same.  When Shawn Scott and his team were called into to deploy around Hurricane Ike in advance of its landfall on the Gulf Coast, they were told to plan for a seven-day assignment, but they found that their commitment was lengthened to 14 days. 
  • Learning:  The Park County team changed their process.  Now they ensure that a support truck comes along with the vehicle, as well as a trailer that is outfitted to carry equipment, radios, batteries, air conditioning and a place for the team to sleep.  The trailer carries food, water and supplies.  As Scott shared with us, “When you go into these disaster areas, you need to be able to take care of yourself because you can’t guarantee that the infrastructure will be there to support you.”  


Looking Ahead

Perhaps I am biased, but I believe we all are very fortunate to be a part of the public safety and first responder community.  I’m most proud of our inclination to share information and key lessons learned with each other, as an opportunity to do our jobs better and improve our service to the community. 

Vendor’s Corner is a guest column about product and vendor issues and solutions.  Lance Marrow is a Regional Sales Manager for Motorola Solutions. His region of responsibility includes the states of Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi.



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