|A state-issued Chevrolet Tahoe tows a portable generator up an icy stretch of dirt road in western Kentucky during the January ice storm. (Photo: Bruce Miller).|
Despite obstacles, tech staff persevere
Hard work, long hours for KEWS, GIS staff
By Kevin Kinnaird
The deadly winter ice storm that wreaked havoc across Kentucky in January proved to be a test of wills for more than a dozen analysts who oversee the state’s public safety emergency communications network.
Jeff Mitchell, field services division manager of the Kentucky Emergency Warning System (KEWS), a division of Commonwealth Office of Technology that manages a network that among other things carries voice transmissions for first responders, said the tireless effort and dedication by those workers in the field were nothing short of commendable.
“These men spent their days and nights running chain saws, packing generators and fuel, sleeping in trucks or in small radio shelters on the side of a mountain, and living out of coolers,” Mitchell said. “If they got lucky, they ate a hot meal when they could find something open."
The KEWS network plays a vital role in state government because it carries data, video, and voice traffic for a large number of agencies including the National Weather Service, Kentucky Educational Television, state police, military affairs, and emergency management.
The analog network was established nearly 30 years ago after state officials saw a need for emergency communications capabilities following a deadly round of tornados that struck the state in 1974. The system is being transitioned to digital to provide capacity for growth and integration of future communication services.
The network consists of 140 broadcast towers strategically placed throughout the commonwealth, including many in desolate, remote areas, Mitchell said. At its peak, the ice storm knocked out electric to more than 60 of those sites at one time, which forced them to rely on backup battery and generator power, he said.
Some technicians were sent to charge batteries at as many as three different sites with only one gasoline generator, a feat that Mitchell described as “a larger task than anyone imagined.”
In one extreme case, technicians at a mountainous location in Knott County used the winch on a truck to pull another toting a generator up a hill, Mitchell said.
“These men had to spend, in some cases, up to 16 hours with chain saws cutting their way into a site,” Mitchell said. “As most can imagine, this was unforgiving work, but to make things worse - and a little more depressing - they had to cut their way back out as the trees, heavy with ice and snow, fell behind them.”
Because cell towers were down in many areas of the state, those technicians were practically on their own as Mitchell said he had little means to communicate with them. One field tech used a computer at state police post to e-mail progress reports periodically, while another used a state police trooper’s mobile data terminal inside a cruiser.
“If we had mobile radios, it would’ve run much smoother,” Mitchell said.
Bruce Miller, a KEWS network analyst and technician who works in the agency’s Owensboro office, was one of those employees working in the field.
While cutting his way into sites in far western Kentucky, he said he could hear creaking and popping noises emanating from the ice-laden trees all around.
“Luckily I didn't see anyone getting hurt or anything,” Miller said. “The biggest obstacle was the first couple of days – you would cut your way into a site and do what we had to do, and it (debris) was falling just as fast right behind you.”
Scott Risley, a network analyst in the Bowling Green office, said he was deployed to far western Kentucky in a state-issued 2005 Chevrolet Tahoe. That vehicle doubled as a bed one night in a department store parking lot in Hopkinsville.
Risley said he and Miller returned from eating one day to find that a chunk of ice measuring about 2.5 feet long by 10-inches in diameter had fallen 400 feet from the top of a tower and smashed the Tahoe’s windshield.
“I was there to do a job and I was going to do it no matter what,” Risley said. “A lot rides on what we do, and it's imperative that we do what we are out here to do - nobody else was going to do it if we didn't.”
The storm claimed 28 lives as it paralyzed the state, knocking out power to nearly 770,000 residents – the highest number of outages ever recorded across the commonwealth simultaneously, officials said.
Janet Lile, deputy executive director of the Office of Infrastructure Services at COT, said KEWS operations personnel also showed “exceptional professionalism” in handling the crises that occurred during the storm.
“They were overwhelmed, but they ensured that the Commonwealth Data Center operations console remained functional despite power outages,” Lile said.
Employees with the Kentucky Division of Geographic Information, another agency within Commonwealth Office of Technology, worked tirelessly in the days after the storm to compile information and make it available to emergency responders.
“The quick turnaround demonstrated here was only possible because of the outstanding interagency communication demonstrated during the ice storm response,” said GIS Manager Kent Anness. “This cross agency interaction and collaboration is an example of how the many state and federal agencies can work together for the benefit of all citizens in the commonwealth.”
Kentucky Division of Water and the Public Service Commission fed the agency daily updates on power outages, debris removal, boil water advisories, and wastewater and water system outages, and that data was quickly made available to emergency responders through two of the state’s Web mapping services, Anness said.
At the height of the storm, FEMA officials ordered aerial photography of five hard-hit western Kentucky communities - Henderson, Benton, Murray, Mayfield, and Paducah, Anness said. A contractor photographed the ice covered communities and processed the data on Feb. 1, and within hours the information was made available to the National Guard.
“Any good response effort begins with a map, and this was effectively demonstrated during the ice storm,” Anness said. “The commonwealth’s vast geospatial data holdings position Kentucky well to respond effectively and efficiently during many types of events.”