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State's radio systems prepped for disaster, but will cell phones work?

Published: Oct. 7, 2018 at 3:20 PM AKDT
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When disaster strikes, communications systems can be among the first casualties, and the consequences can be deadly.

Emergency responders in New Orleans discovered that during Hurricane Katrnia, when winds and flooding knocked out major radio systems, cell phone service and broadcast stations for weeks.

A study done by the U.S. Army National Guard six months after Katrina concluded “The destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina increased dramatically due to communications failures. The communications failures caused undue death and destruction in the affected areas. The first responders were unable to coordinate search and rescue operations efficiently and effectively without communications to guide them to the locations requesting assistance.”

Emergency planners in charge of the first responder radio systems that serve Anchorage and the state of Alaska are confident that would not happen here.

“I go to bed at night believing, I can't envision a disaster, a catastrophe for Anchorage, that would cut our first responders off,” said Trygve Erickson, the director of communications for the Municipality of Anchorage.

The radio system that police, firefighters and other first responders in Anchorage rely on has several levels of redundancy, according to Erickson. There are 12 transmitter sites, each with generators and backup battery systems. If several of the sites were knocked out during an earthquake, Erickson says the system could still function.

On the state level, state agencies use a radio network called the Alaska Land Mobile Radio System, established in 2008, which has 84 transmitter sites that serve 21,000 radios.

“The sites are redundant, having extra equipment...generators, hardened sites basically to public-safety grade,” said Del Smith, director of ALMR, who added, “I was here for the ‘64 earthquake and things have substantially improved since then.”

During Katrina, and the 9/11 terror attacks, first responders were hampered by being on different radio systems that didn’t allow direct communication between agencies. Managers of the Anchorage and State of Alaska radio system say they learned from that, and the two systems can be tied together.

“Even though they are different systems, our Anchorage resources can talk to essentially the full range of state and federal responders, FBI, wildland firefighters, state troopers, Alaska National Guard,” said Erickson.

While first responders might be able to stay in touch, there’s a higher degree of uncertainty when it comes to personal communications during a disaster.

The National Center for Health Statistics tracks the level of cell phone usage across the nation to determine how people are accessing health services. In 2016, the agency estimated that 52 percent of adults in Alaska rely on only a cell phone, and do not have a traditional land-line phone as a means of calling for help.

“If there’s a disaster, everybody is going to pick up their cell phone, and that can overwhelm a network,” said Christine O’Conner, executive director of the Alaska Telecom Association, which represents land-line phone companies.

In a state with an estimated population of 739,795 people , O'Conner says there are 215,474 landlines in Alaska as of August 2018: 102,747 residential lines and 112,727 business lines. She says one of the main advantages of having a corded land-line phone during a disaster is that the systems they are tied to have their own power supplies, and will most likely continue to operate even if the main power grid is knocked out.

FEMA says if disaster strikes, your best bet if you rely on a cell phone is to not try to talk on it, because disasters in other parts of the country have shown that cell networks can become overloaded very quickly.

“Knowing that, don't make a cell phone call, but texting is probably going to get better results than saturating the cell networks,” said Michael O’Hare, the regional administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Cell phone companies, such as Verizon Wireless, say they have taken extensive precautions to maintain service during an emergency in Alaska.

“All of our towers are built with redundancy, so there's an active side and a standby side. They all have backup battery power. There's usually a backup generator on-site” said Charles Bock, a Verizon company representative in Anchorage.

Bock says in addition to backup systems at cell tower locations, the company also has a fleet of portable generators, based in Anchorage and Fairbanks, that can be deployed in an emergency. The company also has “cell phone towers on wheels,” portable systems that have their own power supplies, to replace towers that may go off-line in a disaster.

Verizon also has two large generators at its Anchorage “switch,” the main control center, which can power the entire system. Bock says its control center is switched over to generator power once a week, at random times, to test the system.

Bock suggests that Alaskans take steps on their own to make sure they can keep their devices charged and operating during a disaster, which he says his own family does. “I look for things like making sure I have backup power at my house, making sure my devices are charged, the same thing you would prep for hunting or fishing, you should prep at your house. So, having back up batteries, dry bags, making sure your batteries are charged.”

There are ways to charge your cell phone if the power goes out for an extended period of time, according to Angela Ramirez, a sales specialist at REI who teaches classes on how to prepare. She says small solar charging units are an option, along with hand-crank chargers.

As an alternative to cell phones, Ramirez suggests adding walkie-talkies to your emergency kit. “Instead of a phone, you might want to consider a radio...two hand-helds. They are very small, take AA batteries, and this one has a range of 16 miles” she said as she demonstrated them.”So, if you're home and you're going to send somebody out to get supplies like food or water and you don't want to use your phone, this is a good way to stay in contact with those folks.”

Ramirez also suggests getting a radio that is solar or hand-crank powered to pick up radio stations to hear news and important information during a disaster.

Ramirez says her main advice is to prepare now, to avoid regret later. “Don't wait to prepare. You don't have to do it all in one fell swoop, but do something. You don't want to wait for the bad things to happen and then go, "Ah man, I coulda', shoulda', woulda' ', you want to prepare now.”