National Hurricane Center
Personnel at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, including NHC director Bill Read, center bottom, conduct a conference call to coordinate the 11 a.m. ET forecast for Hurricane Irene, Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011. (AP Photo/Andy Newman)

Hurricane Irene made landfall over eastern North Carolina’s Outer Banks Aug. 27 and moved along southeastern Virginia. It made its second landfall in New Jersey and then made a third landfall as a tropical storm in New York. As of Tuesday afternoon, a total of 2.85 million people were without power, according to the Department of Energy (DOE), and the death toll stood at 41 across 11 states.

According to Ronnie Barefoot, ENP, training supervisor for the Pasquotank-Camdem E9-1-1 in Elizabeth City, N.C., the two counties experienced a few network outages during the storm. The northern and southern fire departments and EMS operate on a microwave system, which didn’t fail during the storm, but the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) tripped up four or five times. “My director had to make a trip to the power site once during the storm, and I did one time too,” Barefoot said. “Those were all the issues we had with any of our VHF networks.”

The Elizabeth City Police Department radio network, which operates on UHF, went down during the storm. “It turned out it was a board in the radio that went down right when the storm was starting, and at the same time, we lost one of the transmit sites of the Camden County Sheriff Offices,” Barefoot said. “A deputy from the sheriff’s office took a portable down to the emergency operations center (EOC), and we were able to use that to get calls out.”

The police department also has a backup UHF frequency for public safety that the department used to continue answering calls. The entire network was brought back up Tuesday morning.

Prior to the storm, Barefoot said the EOC tested all its systems, radios and satellite communications to make sure they worked. “Thank God it wasn’t worse in our area,” Barefoot said. “We had 9 inches of rain and very minimal structural damage. We are in a brand new communications center, and everything went very well for us.”

Raleigh, N.C., which operates on a Motorola SmartZone system maintained by Wake County, encountered no problems during the storm, said Jesse Creech, ENP, supervisor for the North Carolina Telecommunicator Emergency Response Team (TERT). “No specific preparations were made before hand, and we have encountered no problems at all,” Creech said.

According to Gary Davis, electronic services communications manager for the Maryland State Police (MSP), the communications systems that take care of the many public-safety groups within Maryland (local, state and federal) did very well. “Maryland is very unique compared to most places,” Davis said. “We have multiple layered communications systems along with all the agencies planning out interoperable contingencies. For MSP, our troopers were assigned to various strategic locations in order to assist the public; our communications capability allowed us to do what was needed.”

The agency has the capability not only to communicate on its own system, but also to communicate on many county systems and the national interoperability communications channels that are in place within Maryland. “Additionally, our troopers have the capability to communicate with our computer systems within the vehicles. With these many levels, the troopers were kept informed and able to come to those needing help without delay.”

In Clinton County, N.Y., as Irene progressed, it became clear to emergency managers that commercial power was no longer a reliable source, and the county migrated operations to generator backup power. “We have been running our dispatch center/EOC primary communications site on backup generator, as well as three of four primary mountaintop sites on generator for three days,” said Craig Scholl, supervisor for Clinton County. At press time, the county still had problems with access to one of the sites and was unable to get to the top to refuel the unit.

Prior to the storm, county officials tested and verified all backup systems were working properly and lined up network technicians for assistance if needed. “We scheduled extra staff for each shift, opened up our EOC and brought in various mission support agency representatives who could assist our fire, EMS and law-enforcement agencies,” Scholl said.

Public-safety officials in the state of Connecticut are considering themselves extremely lucky, said Frank Kiernan, director of emergency communications for the city of Meriden, Conn.; president elect of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International Atlantic Chapter; and president of the Connecticut National Number Emergency Agency (NENA). “The city of Meriden didn’t have any radio issues; we just installed a Project 25 (P25) digital system with microwave,” Kiernan said. “We had officers out in the storm searching for a missing person out in one of the local parts, and we could hear them on their portables perfect. We didn’t have any degradation of signal.”

Kiernan said that he spoke with other public-safety officials throughout the state, and communications also held up perfectly. “For the majority of us, our concern isn’t infrastructure but personnel, and them having to work such long hours,” he said.

“One of the advantages of hurricanes being forecast is it gives us the opportunity to prepare and exercise some of our backup systems and make sure they are in working order,” Kiernan said. “We tested them a few days before and operated on some backup systems to make sure they could sustain us through the storm. Because we are still in the recovery and assessment stage, we haven’t had a chance to do an after-action report on communications yet. We will do that soon, because even with things that run well, there is always room for improvement.”