Communications Systems Withstand Savage Winds, Debris from Hurricane Michael
Tuesday, November 06, 2018 | Comments

Savage winds and debris posed communications and response challenges as Hurricane Michael ripped through the Florida Panhandle and parts of Georgia and Alabama in October.

One of the biggest challenges for emergency responders was inaccessibility caused by a large amount of debris. The region impacted by Michael is home to tree orchards that support the papermaking industry. The hurricane’s strong winds ripped the trees from the ground and deposited them all around the area.

“Those trees were just scattered all over the roads,” said Steve Williams, director of Florida’s Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System (SLERS), which was built and is maintained by Harris.

In several instances, crews sent to repair SLERS sites were unable to drive to the sites because of downed trees blocking the roads. In those cases, crews had to cut a large enough path to walk through and then carry the necessary equipment in by hand.

Despite the strong winds, the SLERS LMR system held up for the most part. One tower in Mariana County was twisted by about 18 degrees because trees fell on its guy wires, causing microwave misalignment.

At another site in Bay County, where the storm made landfall, communications went down for around 24 hours because the microwave was knocked out of alignment and a generator shut down after overheating.

While nearby emergency personnel couldn’t talk over the network in areas with the misaligned microwave dishes, local repeaters allowed them to continue communicating in local mode, Williams said.

The SLERS system was back up to prestorm capacity less than 96 hours after the storm hit, Williams said. To allow for a quick response and prepare for the storm, sites were refueled with enough fuel for up to seven days, and repair crews were staged in areas mostly out of reach of the storm but still close enough to allow a quick response.

The hurricane knocked out the tower that houses Calhoun County’s law enforcement communications, which are digital, and fire and EMS communications, which are analog.

Calhoun County Sheriff Glenn Kimbrel reached out to Williams, and crews placed two antennas on a SLERS tower to get the county’s communications back up by allowing it to operate off the SLERS network. Law enforcement communications came up first, followed by fire and EMS communications about 20 hours later, Kimbrel said.

The county continues to operate off the SLERS system while it figures out next steps for its communications systems, Kimbrel said.

To provide more capacity for additional users such as those from Calhoun County, SLERS relied on available blue channels — channels that were licensed but never turned on because of the associated costs. Adding those channels to the network required bringing in new base stations and “firing them up,” Williams said.

The Florida Department of Management Services (DMS) recently awarded Motorola Solutions with a contract to build a new SLERS system starting in 2020. Harris protested that decision, but a Florida judge recommended that DMS award the contract to Motorola.

Given how the current SLERS system has survived storms such as Hurricane Michael, Harris executives said a refresh of the current EDACS system to Project 25 (P25) would be more appropriate than building an entirely new network, said Max Green, vice president of sales and customer experience for Harris.

Harris has filed an appeal of DMS’ final decision in a Florida district court of appeal.

Supplemental Communications
Several agencies also used nonradio communications to support their radio communications throughout the storm.

In Miller County, Georgia, Doug Cofty, Colquitt-Miller Emergency Services director, and other county officials relied on First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) service to communicate during and after the storm. Colquitt-Miller Emergency Services has FirstNet devices, such as Wi-Fi hot spots, on each of its four ambulances. The organization began using those devices in July.

Cofty contacted AT&T and the company brought in a cell on light truck (CoLT) to provide coverage, as well as 30 FirstNet-enabled handsets. Those handsets were distributed among responders and county officials based on who was deemed most critical.

Voice communications over Long Term Evolution (LTE) was the main source of communications for Miller County EMS personnel during the storm, Cofty said. The EMS agency’s radio network stayed up during the storm, but the agency did not have the resources to provide radios for other county offices and outside entities that came to support rescue-and-recovery efforts.

While many nearby agencies have already moved to 800 MHz, Colquitt-Miller Emergency Services is still on a VHF network, making radio interoperability with those outside agencies difficult, Cofty said.

The FirstNet service remained operational during the hurricane itself but went out briefly — for a few hours — a couple of days after the storm hit during recovery efforts, Cofty said. Immediately after the storm, an FCC report estimated that about 50 percent of cell sites were out in the county.

Similarly, the Georgia State Patrol (GSP) and Georgia Department of Public Safety (DPS) relied on backup push-to-talk (PTT) communications to supplement their radio system during the storm.

The entities’ primary radio network is a P25 network with conventional VHF repeaters located throughout the state. The organizations supplement those radio communications with Southern Linc’s iDEN service and will transition to Southern Linc’s CriticalLinc LTE system sometime next year, a GSP spokesperson said.

In one Georgia area affected by the storm, a 300-foot communications tower fell, knocking out primary radio communications for that area. GSP and DPS used the Southern Linc system for backup communications until new antennas, coaxial cable and repeater equipment could be installed on a new tower, which happened about two days after the storm, the spokesperson said.

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