Hurricane season starts on June 1st and while this year is predicted to be a bit less active one, it only takes one in your community to take center stage. The months of July through September are, historically, the greatest risk of hurricane development so now is the time for managers of public safety/local government radio systems located along the Gulf of Mexico-Atlantic coastline to get prepared for the worse.
In our experience radio systems fail in hurricanes due to three reasons: damaged antennas; loss of electrical power; and loss of tower site connectivity. Now is the time to reaffirm contract availability status with reliable tower service providers. Be sure to discuss the firm’s other contracted commitments to gauge its specific ability to expeditiously respond in a storm’s aftermath. In areas where hurricanes seem to frequently ‘visit’, consider contracts with multiple tower service firms to reinforce peace of mind.
Have tower site antenna and transmission line components inspected in April or May each year. Confirm all antenna attachment hardware is properly torqued and that any suspect hardware replaced. Don’t forget to check the site’s electrical grounding system as imbedded thunderstorms can cause lightning surge damage to critical electronic components. It is a good idea to sweep test each transmission line to determine integrity of connectors. With respect to microwave antennas, make sure each is properly on-path and level. If your system’s microwave antennas do not have radomes or dual stiff-arm supports, get them installed NOW.
Some tower sites seem to become vegetation jungles with the passage of time….particularly rental tower sites. If, at your sites, you see trees encroaching on power company right of ways, get rid of them. Restringing downed power lines takes time and it would be embarrassing if the downed line was just outside your site’s equipment shelter. Have all generators in the radio system serviced and load tested. That means putting the transfer switch to good use and running each site for several hours on generator power. Then, reassess and fix accordingly…especially cooling system water leaks! Pin hole cooling system leaks will eventually shut any generator down and getting those important repairs in the immediate aftermath of a storm is wishful thinking. At three-year inspection intervals, flush the radiator and replace the battery, fan belts and coolant hoses.
It is always good practice to establish fuel refreshment via an emergency response retainer but expect the worse and configure your radio sites to operate for, minimally, seven days via on-site stored fuel. Make certain radio system vendors (radio, microwave, consultants, etc.) have ready access to your jurisdictional area to affect emergency repairs and to provide technical and supplemental equipment support. Give them clear instructions: “If things look seriously bad, don’t wait for us to call because we most likely can’t -- just show up!”
Provide clear instructions to key radio users on how to utilize interoperability and mutual aid resources resident within their radio equipment. In normal circumstances these resources are rarely used, which means when a true emergency arises few know what they do, or worse, how to use them. Clearly, the wrong time to try learning how to call for help via an interoperability link is when winds are CAT-4 (or worse) and the water’s rising. Training exercises are critically important, yet simulated radio system failures are rarely injected into those sessions. That’s a missed opportunity. Nothing gets a radio user’s mind more fully engaged in training as when what normally works suddenly slows or altogether stops…and what they must do next. Encourage radio dispatchers to utilize backup radio control equipment to gain familiarity with those important processes.
In the aftermath of a major hurricane, expect that commercial electric services will be disrupted. It is difficult to recharge portable radio batteries absent electricity so consider installing extra bank chargers at key public safety locations and emergency response/command vehicles. In the confusion, expect that some battery packs may be misplaced or, if flooding occurs, are damaged. A cache of spare batteries (no less than 15% of the normal fleet) should be retained as spares. Responding equipment vendors should assume spare batteries, speaker microphones and even radios will be needed.
As you see, proper hurricane preparation involves confirming where contracted radio vendors, radio system hardware, and radio users are each ready to meet the physical stresses, logistical disruptions, and operational hardships likely to occur. Can every contingency be addressed through a pre-planning process? No, since every storm’s size, duration and intensity differ -- but a proactive inspection, training and preparation program always leads to
a far better net result.