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O N L I N E  E X C L U S I V E

An Unsung Hero During Tuscaloosa Tornadoes

September 06, 2011

Picture taken from the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) Police Department headquarters April 27.
 
 
Michael Mello is the communications systems engineer for the city of Tuscaloosa, Ala. He has 23 years of experience and acquires and manages the city’s wireless and landline communications, and oversees a staff of eight technicians. The city operates a VHF conventional Project 25 (P25) network. On April 27, a tornado reported to be 1 mile wide, moved through Tuscaloosa from the southwest, taking 32 lives and injuring 600.
 
“Michael's three-man team reported for duty on their own since we had no phone land line or cell service and went right to work re-establishing the two radio channels that were inoperative,” said Bob Lundell, a Tuscaloosa councilman. “It is a credit to Michael and his management skills to have assembled such a dedicated crew to operate the city's radio system.”
 
Where were you when the tornado hit Tuscaloosa April 27?
I was on the third and top floor of police headquarters. I was in the chief’s conference room, which has large windows facing southwest. I watched the storm approach and pass by within one-quarter of a mile from headquarters. Chief Steve Anderson and I had heard Officer Robert Fourt call out the first touch down of the tornado about 2 – 3 miles to our southwest. Chief Anderson ordered the evacuation of the dispatch/9-1-1 call center, adjacent to the conference room on the third floor. I then moved into the dispatch center as the tornado passed to continue to monitor its progress.
 
How did you restore communications during and immediately after the disaster?
One of the first structures destroyed was our backup radio tower for our primary channels. We also lost the fiber connection to the primary tower, and we didn’t have use of police channel 1 or fire channel 1. We lost the use of landline phones and cell phones immediately after the storm. The dispatchers, officers and firemen began operations on our backup channels. We located police channel 2 and fire channel 2 at different tower sites for this reason. There isn’t a single point of failure in our network during a catastrophic event, even as large as this one.
 
Several technicians arrived shortly after the storm, even though I couldn’t contact them. The technicians were dispatched to the primary tower site and restored the fiber connection an hour and half after the storm passed. It took that long for these experienced technicians only because of the traffic that flooded the roads after the storm. Many citizens were curious to see the storms’ aftermath, but it hampered our efforts and the rescue efforts.
 
Once we restored the radio system to 100 percent capacity, we focused on supplying radios to all first responders and outside agencies coming to assist us, as well as repairing damaged patrol cars and fire apparatus.
 
Please describe the damage that occurred.
Tuscaloosa’s only wastewater treatment plant was moderately damaged, and service was restored the next day. In addition to the city’s backup radio tower being completely destroyed, the Tuscaloosa County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) facility was rendered useless.
 
The Tuscaloosa Fire Station 4 was completely destroyed. The firemen survived in the shower under a mattress. They responded to the hard-hit Alberta City area on foot with portable radios and what tools they could find. The Tuscaloosa Police Department East Precinct was rendered useless.
 
The warehouse portion of the Curry building, where the city’s stores nearly all of its backup generators and much of the disaster response equipment, was leveled. Three elementary schools were severely damaged, and more than 7,000 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed
 
Despite the level of devastation, I witnessed only a calm resolve to overcome our problems from city employees and citizens.
 
What’s the most important communications technology during a disaster such as this?
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, having a working two-way radio system dedicated to public safety was a necessity. There is no replacement for instant voice communications in the high-stress, high-tempo operations that faced the dispatchers and first responders. Landline and cellular communications weren’t available at the most critical point of this disaster. However, the network of SouthernLINC Wireless, our local iDEN carrier, held up remarkably well and was used extensively by nearly all the responding agencies.
 
Have radio communications changed within your agency since the tornadoes?
Plans are under way to move the dispatch/9-1-1 call center to a new location that can be withstand storms of this nature. This event was a startling reminder that technology is a great tool when implemented properly, but it can’t replace the need to verbally communicate instantly. We use a distributed model for our radio system, and it served us well April 27. That’s not a change, but more of an affirmation. 
 
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