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County overcame obstacles during ice storm response

Posted: February 19, 2014 - 1:05am
Columbia County Deputy Russell Loyd directs traffic at an intersection. After the ice storm, the county's emergency response system worked well.  Photo by Jim Blaylock
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Columbia County Deputy Russell Loyd directs traffic at an intersection. After the ice storm, the county's emergency response system worked well.

Columbia County officials and emergency responders weathered more complications during last week’s ice storm than just ice.

The county Emergency and Operations Division, which coordinated the response to the storm from fire department, law enforcement and medical personnel, had to deal with unforeseen complications, mostly involving communications.

To ensure public safety, generators were used to keep the Emergency and Operations Center, fire stations and the jail and police substation running during the massive power outages.

But service through land phone lines and cell phones was unreliable at best during the height of the storm on Wednesday and Thursday.

“The good thing about everything is that what did go down on us did it one at a time,” Emergency and Operations Division Director Pam Tucker said. “We never missed a beat with power. There was never a time we weren’t able to do what we needed to do.”

The saving grace was the digital radios that county departments and the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office personnel used to communicate with each other.

The system, bought by the sheriff’s office in late 2012, followed shortly by other county departments, replaced a VHF system and runs through the county broadband system. The Phase II trunked TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) radio system is digital as opposed to the long-used VHF system.

“This new radio system and the sheriff’s office, it being put into other departments, we all had the capability to communicate,” sheriff’s Capt. Steve Morris said. “We’re so fortunate to have the ability to communicate back and forth with each other.

‘‘We’ve never been able to do that before. The radios, to my knowledge, were flawless.”

Tucker said the radio system was a lifeline that kept everyone in contact, even when all other communications systems failed.

“They never let us down once,” Tucker said. “What a great thing for the county to have those.”

One stumbling block emergency officials didn’t expect was to have a shortage of fuel for emergency vehicles such as fire trucks and patrol cars.

Only a few gas stations were open during the height of the power outages on Feb. 12, and some had trouble with payment processing systems and could only accept cash and not the county’s Fuel Man cards.

When more stations did open as power was gradually restored, residents flooded them to get fuel.

“The county had a fuel truck,” Columbia County Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Danny Kuhlmann said. “They would go around and fuel the emergency vehicles.”

Firefighters and deputies and county crews, including those from Roads and Bridges and Emergency Operations, worked overtime during the storm. Morris said an additional shift of deputies were called in to handle the tremendous number of calls of downed trees and power lines, escorts, shuttles to the shelter, welfare checks and direct traffic at intersections.

Kuhlmann said he came to work about 3 a.m. Feb. 11 and went home 39 hours later. His shift was typical of the ones most firefighters worked as they left their families in cold homes to run public safety calls.

Tucker said the power outages caused most of the trouble, but, “We think ahead. We were prepared.”

Morris said the response to the storm went as well as hoped.

“We weathered the storm, no pun intended,” Morris said. “I think it all went well.”

Kuhlmann said there are always things that can be improved on during weather events and other disasters. Fire department officials are looking at the ice storm as a way to get better.

“The entire process for us was a good learning experience,” Kuhlmann said. “We’re going to sit down and look at what worked well and what can be improved upon.’’

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