February’s ice storm was a brutal attack on the communications and utility services in Columbia County.
Power went out to most of the county. Lots of land phone lines froze or were knocked down by falling trees. Cellphone service was spotty and unreliable.
One service never failed or faltered – the county’s Broadband Utility network.
“It’s geared for public safety,” said Lewis Foster, Broadband Utility manager. “Our entire network is underground.”
The network, which went live last fall, comprises 220 miles of buried fiber-optic cable and seven wireless communication towers. A federal $13.5 million grant paid for most of the $18 million network.
The broadband network is leased partially by communications companies, some of which experienced outages from other ice storm factors. But all county departments and facilities are connected to the network, which provided a reliable Internet and phone connection during times when other communications methods didn’t.
The network also supports the digital radio system used by the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office and other county departments including Emergency and Operations, Roads and Bridges and Fleet Services. It is also the radio system that 911 dispatchers use to communicate with deputies, fire officials and other emergency response resources.
“Where we are fortunate is that other county agencies got on board with it too,” said sheriff’s Lt. John Sherman, who oversees the E-911 Communications Center. “We have inter-connectivity. That’s huge.”
During the storm when even land phone lines into the dispatch center went down, the radios system, supported through the broadband system, never failed and allowed constant communication among those who needed it.
“The radios never had a flaw,” Sherman said.
Foster said the towers and node cabinets within the system run on batteries that are constantly charged by electricity. When that went out, officials kept generators fueled to keep those batteries charged. Even if those generators run out of fuel, the batteries still have another 8 hours of life, Foster said.
No ice damaged the towers. But if it had, redundancies within the system act like a ring and signals just take a different path to their destinations.
Though the system performed as it should in such emergencies, Foster said he’s taking the storm as a learning experience and looking into alternative, more permanent back-up fuel sources such as natural gas or propane for the generators in case of power outages.
“You learn a couple of things,” Foster said.
Since the storm, Foster said, other agencies are looking to use digital radios and the broadband system.