Florida counties experience dj vu
In the early hours of Feb. 2, multiple tornados touched down and ripped through several central Florida counties, killing 21 people. To complicate the response effort, one twister demolished a 1567-foot tower that supported one county’s interoperable communications systems.
Most residents were asleep as the first tornado hit near Wildwood in Sumter County at 3:08 a.m. and crossed into Lake County at 3:25 a.m., according to news reports. Additional tornados touched down in rural Lake County at 3:37 a.m. before crossing into Volusia County. Post-storm surveys indicated one tornado reached a peak intensity of EF-1, or 100 mph to 105 mph, and had a track length of 3 miles, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported.
The emergency manager for Sumter County contacted amateur radio operator John Fleming, call sign W3GQJ, to man one of several shelters designated in anticipation that multiple structures and homes were destroyed throughout the county. Fleming said surprisingly few victims needed the shelter to which he was assigned because most of the 35,000 homes in the area were less than 2 years old and built to the state’s 110 miles-per-hour standard. Radio station and cell phones towers also were not affected in the immediate area. However, commercial systems did overload from the number of calls coming into the area from individuals trying to reach residents. A temporary cell tower was erected to handle the increased demand, he said.
It was a different story in Lake County, said Gregory Holcomb, communications technologies manager for the county’s Department of Public Safety. Lake County covers approximately 1200 square miles, and its communications system consists of six tower sites. Part of the system is the Cox Radio communications tower, which was dismantled by one of the tornados. Also demolished was the brick-and-mortar communications site.
“That eliminated a lot of our interoperability and coverage in that particular area,” he said. “So our feat was, through some regional efforts and some folks who brought in equipment, to re-construct the sight in about 36 hours.”
Emergency responders from Orange, Polk and Seminole counties assisted in re-establishing communications. They arrived on the scene in approximately 3 hours with mobile generators, mobile towers and mobile communications equipment. The response was orchestrated through the Florida Domestic Security Strategy initiative, which is financed by a Department of Homeland Security grant awarded in 2003, Holcomb said. It focuses on interagency and interdisciplinary domestic security preparedness, as well as response and recovery capabilities.
Mobile command vehicles were able to deploy VHF, UHF and 800 MHz repeaters. Because of a regional frequency plan, first responders already knew which frequencies were set aside for interoperability. The site Lake County lost housed VHF, UHF and 800 MHz equipment, so the task was to re-establish those infrastructure components for emergency units entering the area from surrounding regions.
“What we had on the infrastructure was devastated at this particular site,” Holcomb said. “So agencies needed to come in with mobile command systems that were designed for an interoperable environment. We relied heavily on the mobile command units for portable-to-mobile connectivity until we could get infrastructure up to cover the area.”
What helped most during the disaster was having a pre-developed action plan, Holcomb said. For those areas prone to natural disasters, he recommends that regional consensus be reached regarding frequencies, equipment, contacts and resources, in order to ensure a successful communication-restoration operation.
Holcomb said the Lake County Board approved in January an 800 MHz countywide system that will replace the current VHF system, in order to achieve compatibility with surrounding counties’ systems. “This will allow better penetration and coverage if we lose a tower in the future,” he said.