High Winds Cause Trouble for Florida Agencies During Hurricane Irma
Friday, September 29, 2017 | Comments
The high winds of Hurricane Irma posed a challenge for first responders and 9-1-1 dispatchers in communities across Florida. In both Collier and Pinellas counties, emergency officials had to pull first responders off the roads for a period because of wind speeds that exceeded 140 miles per hour and made it too dangerous to be out.

“That was really hard; we’ve never had to do that,” said Jackie Weinreich, radio and technology director for Pinellas County Safety and Emergency Services.

That put pressure on emergency call-takers as they had to queue calls until the strong winds died down and first responders could safely address those calls. While first responders were unable to get out, the emergency command center brought in counselors to help call-takers and doctors offer what help and advice they could to citizens on the phone.

Once the winds slowed enough to allow emergency response, Weinreich and other officials printed off the queued calls and color coded them to prioritize each call. First responders also performed street by street sweeps to offer help to anyone who was unable to reach 9-1-1.

Collier County experienced a similar situation as it saw a period of about 12 – 13 hours where responders in the county were unable to respond to calls because of the high winds buffeting the county.

“It was a little bit chaotic at first because you were trying to prioritize which calls fire, police and EMS should go out on first,” said Dianne Flanagan, CAD administrator for the Collier County Sheriff’s Office.

As part of its after-action work, the county plans to develop a better plan for addressing queued calls in similar situations in the future, Flanagan said.

During and after the storm, Collier County, which is home to Naples and Marco Island and was one of the first places hit, saw its call volume quintuple from its normal 900 – 1,000 calls in a 24-hour period to 5,000 calls in a 24-hour period.

Both Collier and Pinellas counties saw sharp increases in emergency calls as power was restored, causing issues with smoke and fire alarms and power surges. Pinellas County worked with utilities to stagger the power coming on in different areas so that first responders could deal with any issues that arose systematically.

Despite the sharp increase in the number of emergency calls, neither county experienced issues with its CAD system. Collier County had a radio technician from Communications International (Ci) stationed at its emergency operations center (EOC) through the storm and that allowed, the county and Ci to immediately respond to any issues that affected its radio system during the worst parts of the storm.

Once the storm passed, Ci sent technicians from its location throughout Florida and North Carolina to assist Collier County deal with its response and recovery.

In Pinellas County, which is home to St. Petersburg and several other large cities, the county’s Motorola Solutions Project 25 (P25) radio system stayed up 100 percent of the time.

“We had no loss of service,” Weinreich said. “It was amazing; we were really lucky.”

The county’s 10 towers did not suffer any significant damage. The heavy winds did knock several microwave dishes on the towers out of alignment, but that did not greatly affect communications for the county, Weinreich said.

Mobile communications firm Williams Communications serves agencies throughout Florida and Georgia. The company is a partner with Harris, which manages and operates the Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System (SLERS).

In general, SLERS held up well during the storm, said Bryan Kocher, vice president of Williams Communications. Several sites went down, but workers were able to get them back up quickly.

The Williams team is still assessing how the storm affected sites, but so far, it appears the heavy winds were the biggest issue, Kocher said. The winds set off the high-temperature alarms on several generators and caused them to go into protection mode. Workers then had to go to the sites and reset the generators.

At one site, the fuel tank of a generator blew, requiring crews to take a temporary generator to the site to get it up and running. Crews also had difficulty reaching some of the sites because of the state of the roads and had to clear paths to the sites.

A team from Williams deployed to Monroe County, which experienced a large number of outages with its radio system, to provide cache radios so that county officials and first responders could communicate during the recovery effort.

For both the Williams and Collier County teams, preparation and planning in the weeks leading up to the storm helped in their successful response to the storm.

Collier County officials began planning about a week before the storm. Preparations included daily agencywide conference calls, as well as internal planning within the communications division to pull together its strategy for the storm, Flanagan said.

The county also moved a mobile communications center, with nine dispatch positions, further inland to serve as a backup if the main 9-1-1 center went down. The county reached out to its vendors to make sure they were aware of the situation and ensure that resources would be available should the system go down, Flanagan said.

Luckily, the county did not have to fall back to a mobile command center, but the center is now in Everglade City serving as a central command center because most of the city government’s facilities were destroyed in the storm.

Williams began working with its customers on high-level planning as soon as the hurricane was announced, Kocher said. Once the hurricane was about a week out, crews began assessing radio sites to ensure that generators had the proper amount of fuel and there was no nearby debris that could blow into and damage the sites.

Williams and its customers also ran through several worst-case scenarios so that crews would be prepared and ready to respond should those circumstances arise.

For the Williams team, operations are almost back to normal since the hurricane, Kocher said. Some customer sites still require a few minor repairs, but most of the systems and backup are up and 100 percent.

While Collier County is recovering, the county is still dealing with a shortage of staffing in the dispatch center. Following the storm, the county reached out to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Telecommunications Emergency Response Taskforce, which supplied about 36 dispatchers in the two weeks after the hurricane. The last of those support dispatchers left Sept. 29, and the county is preparing to return to normal shifts with required overtime as the county continues to catch up on emergency calls.

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