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Emergency Communications Stay Up During Storms

January 11, 2005 

KEWS Vehicle Damage
During snow and ice storms, KEWS technicians often have to clear a path along dangerous access roads to reach the KEWS network towers.

Last month, Techlines highlighted the 30-year history of the Kentucky Emergency Warning System (KEWS), the microwave network that enables communication for those working in the fields of emergency management and public safety. The network supports radio communication for Kentucky state police, Fish & Wildlife, Forestry, Kentucky Emergency Management, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Vehicle Enforcement.  Keeping the network, which utilizes 144 wireless radio towers throughout the state, up and running makes for an interesting job for a KEWS technician.  Because many of the towers are located atop rugged terrain on the highest hill or mountain in the area, getting there on a normal day can be difficult.  If you add ice and snow to the mix like Kentucky had on December 22 and 23 of last month, the job can get downright dangerous.

The KEWS public safety radio towers are classified into two categories, backbone and spur. Backbone sites have considerably more customer traffic than the spur sites, so they are the towers that get attention first during an outage. Last month, four sites in four different counties lost power for as long as five days in areas around Frankfort. Two backbone sites lost power during the storm, and the challenge for the KEWS technicians is keeping these sites up and working. All of the sites require emergency power assistance in the form of trailer mounted or portable generators. Portable generators run eight hours before needing refueling, requiring frequent visits.

Rock Slide
Scenes such as this rock slide on a KEWS access road in Harlan County are common, especially after heavy rainfall. Trailer mounted generators have larger fuel cells capable of 24-hour duration, requiring less frequent attention.

The trade off comes when the trailer has to be mobilized for refueling. At one of the backbone sites called Jeptha Knob in Shelby County, that meant taking the generator down an icy incline, just to return it back up to that site a short time later. While attempting to climb the ice-covered hill pulling the trailer, one KEWS technician's truck lost traction and began sliding backward, jack-knifing into a tree. Another technician had to brace his truck against a tree and use a wench to pull the vehicle and the generator to the top.

In the middle of the storm the KEWS technicians cleared the road of downed trees covered with ice to get to the site, and found that a short time later they had more downed trees to clear on the same road going back.  Maintaining emergency communications at the microwave communications sites is a challenging and hazardous job, but keeping the network up and running can save lives, according to Mike Inman, Kentucky's commissioner of technology.  "The men and women who support KEWS and the microwave system have their hands full everyday. They are on call and on the job 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Because the microwave communications system supports emergency communication, keeping it up and running is critical.  Not only is the weather an issue, making their jobs hazardous, but the equipment they service is in desperate need of upgrading.  In many cases they're working on 30 year old technology. Strategic placement of the microwave towers make them a critical part of the Commonwealth's emergency communications infrastructure, and make them a vital part of our future strategy for extending wireless communications and broadband connectivity to all regions of the state.  We are working to secure funding to give the system and the networks it supports a much needed makeover to extend its service life well into the 21st Century."

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Last Updated 1/11/2005