Enterprise workers failed to use new radio network
By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer
MONTGOMERY — In the harrowing minutes after a March 1 tornado struck Enterprise and killed nine people, including eight students huddled in a high school hallway, emergency workers had trouble talking to one another.
The frustration of police and rescue workers trying to communicate occurred despite an $18 million emergency radio communications upgrade installed in Alabama with Homeland Security funds.
The problem wasn't with the new network, however. Communication was snarled because those responding to the tornado disaster were trying to talk on cell phones or walkie-talkies connected to the cell phone system — and it was overloaded.
"People were frustrated, but all they had to do was turn on their radios," state Homeland Security Director Jim Walker said.
Most police, firefighters and other emergency responders in Coffee County use Southern LINC Wireless phones and walkie-talkies for day-to-day communications. Walker said that system in Coffee County was jammed in the minutes after the tornado — not just with emergency traffic, but also with people calling to check on friends and relatives.
The manager of radio frequency and construction for Southern LINC, Clay Brogdon, said traffic on the system more than tripled "instantaneously."
"It overwhelmed our network," Brogdon said.
In Enterprise, Coffee County Deputy EMA Director Larry Walker agreed that the communication problems of emergency responders following the tornado were "a cell tower issue" that could have been avoided.
"We switched over to VHF and UHF radios and that system worked fine," Larry Walker said. He said like most people, police officers and other rescue workers have gotten used to using cell phone technology.
"Because of our reliance on it, if it goes down you're in a quandary," Larry Walker said.
Rosanna Guadagno, a social psychology professor at The University of Alabama, said the problems in Enterprise show how dependent all parts of society, including police and rescue workers, have become on cell phones.
"Humans tend to be creatures of habit and our habit these days is the cell phone. It's disabling when technology we have come to rely on is not available to us," Guadagno said.
She said it's not surprising that people would struggle with cell phones, before using the radios.
"Cell phones have become our symbol for communicating and people forget that older and more stable technology is still there," Guadagno said.
For years, law enforcement agencies in Alabama have struggled with radio systems that often would not allow officers in one city to talk to police in the next town or even to their own fire department. To try to fix that problem, the Alabama Department of Homeland Security used $18 million from a federal grant in 2004 to buy equipment that would allow emergency responders using VHF systems to talk to officers using UHF and would span other communications gaps.
Walker said the new equipment had been installed and worked with few problems.
Brogdon said the Southern LINC tower in the area stayed in service throughout the early Thursday afternoon storm and service was never completely lost to Enterprise. But he said because so many people were trying to use the system, many callers were unable to get through.
Brogdon said the company brought in additional equipment from Birmingham and had increased capacity in Enterprise by Friday evening.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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