When a supercell thunderstorm traveled through the middle of Tennessee last month, it produced several violent tornadoes that wrecked multiple buildings and took several lives. An EF-4 tornado touched down near Putnam County, producing winds up to 175 miles per hour – the strongest tornado the nation has seen in nearly three years destroying over 100 structures, including part of a local public safety radio tower managed by the Tennessee Highway Patrol. The tower housed the state’s land mobile radio system that served Cookeville and the surrounding area, limiting radio communication in this region.
Commercial networks were also crippled in the immediate aftermath of the storm. As a result, the highway patrol and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) requested assistance through FirstNet. FirstNet provided mobile cell sites, known as Satellite Cells on Light Trucks (SatCOLTs), and additional devices to first responders in the area. Over the course of the next several days, eight SatCOLTs were deployed across Putnam County, and over 150 devices were issued to responders.
First responders from several agencies, including the Tennessee Highway Patrol, TEMA, the Tennessee National Guard, and county and local fire, police, and emergency medical services (EMS) departments used Enhanced Push-to-Talk (ePTT) tied into the state’s radio system. The ePTT app allowed responders in Putnam County affected by the damaged radio site to continue to communicate with other responders throughout the state to coordinate recovery and damage assessment efforts.
TACN was set up with a tie-in to FirstNet prior to this storm, and the highway patrol and Tennessee Department of Public Safety officials established talk groups on ePTT to talk to dispatch and other responders. As agencies received additional devices to support this disaster, they quickly and easily loaded these talk groups, allowing for seamless interoperability.
Brandon Smith, Putnam County’s Emergency Operations Center manager explained why FirstNet was essential in responding to this disaster. “Our immediate priority became to create a network for first responders to communicate. Having a single network, with Uplift capabilities and deployable assets tailored to our needs, was an essential part of our plan and is why we quickly reached out to FirstNet.”
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