American citizens and first responders have not learned necessary lessons from the September 11, 2001 attacks. What lesson? That you must have good communications in order to save lives and you cannot depend on cell phones for emergency communications. Why?
One, because you cannot depend on normal forms of communication because towers may be damaged or completely down as a result of natural disasters like tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes. In the event of future terror attacks on our homeland, we have no way of knowing if cell communications would be working, so why would we even think about depending on that form of communication?
Two, because even if normal systems of communication are working, they will be overloaded and networks will be bogged down. If you cannot communicate in a disaster, you are handicapped and lives will be lost.
This has been bought home in incident after incident since September 11, and most recently in Enterprise, Alabama on March 1, 2007.
In the chaos after a tornado killed nine people in Enterprise, Alabama, emergency workers had trouble talking to one another because they tried to use their cell phones instead of the state's $18 million emergency communications upgrade, officials say.
"People were frustrated, but all they had to do was turn on their radios," state Homeland Security Director Jim Walker told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Most police, firefighters and other emergency responders in Coffee County use Southern LINC Wireless phones and walkie-talkies for day-to-day communications.
But after the tornado struck on March 1, traffic on that system more than tripled "instantaneously," said Southern LINC's manager of radio frequency and construction, Clay Brogdon.
"It overwhelmed our network," Brogdon said.
Like most people, police and other rescue workers have gotten used to using cell phone technology, said Larry Walker, Coffee County deputy emergency management director.
"Because of our reliance on it, if it goes down you're in a quandary," Larry Walker said.
He said emergency workers eventually switched from cell phones to radios "and that system worked fine."
The problems in Enterprise show how dependent society has become on cell phones, said Rosanna Guadagno, a social psychology professor at the University of Alabama.
"Humans tend to be creatures of habit and our habit these days is the cell phone. It's disabling when technology we have come to rely on is not available to us," Guadagno said.
For years, law enforcement agencies in Alabama struggled with different radio systems that often would not allow officers in one city to talk to police in the next town or even to their own fire department.
In an effort to fix that problem, the Alabama Department of Homeland Security used $18 million from a federal grant in 2004 to buy equipment that would bridge the gaps between various radio systems.
Brogdon said the Southern LINC cell phone tower in the area stayed in service throughout the emergency and Enterprise never completely lost service. He said many callers were unable to get through because so many people were trying to use the system. (source)
One thing that communities can do is encourage the use of Amateur (Ham) Radio. Most communities have Ham clubs, where volunteers teach classes in their spare time for free, other than the cost of a study guide. Anyone can learn Ham radio, the requirements for Morse Code have been dropped. Hams have their own radios, their own equipment. A Ham radio operator can make a wire antenna and have it strung up within a few minutes, if necessary and if permanent towers and antennas have been destroyed. Hams can talk to folks a few feet down the road or they can talk anywhere in the world.
We were in Hawaii when a damaging hurricane hit, for several days there was no communication with mainland United States, other than Ham radio. The operators worked around the clock, sharing information with officials as well as passing messages between family members.
Better safe than sorry. Better prepared than not. Thank a Ham today and become a Ham yourself. Lives may depend on it.