Backup Communications Center Flooded in Bergen County
Communications problems were widespread in Bergen County. Some 25 of the county`s 70 municipalities were severely affected by breakdowns in communications.
Many problems were precipitated by the flooding of the AT&T/Bell Atlantic regional switching station in Rochelle Park on Thursday afternoon, which affected long-distance communications, including central station (local) to central station service. The Bergen County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) could not make outgoing calls from one town to the next or even to another section in the same locality. We could receive calls, however. Initially, we made calls from pay phones with prepaid calling cards, until we ran out of cash. (All the ATM machines also went down when telephone service was lost.) We then switched to Sprint telephone service (its calls do not go through AT&T). However, the dial tone became sporadic as more and more citizens learned about this available service and began using it.
Almost all towns suffered some type of telephone outages. Many local departments lost telephone communications and had to have their calls forwarded to different locations. The County Communications building, located in Hackensack, serves as the backup for the entire Bergen County 911 system [27 Public Service Answering Points (PSAPs)]. When this building was flooded with eight feet of water, the County`s entire 911 backup system shut down. Ordinarily, when the 911 system becomes totally overloaded, the incoming calls are reverted back to local police departments. However, many of them were experiencing flooding problems and had arranged for call-forwarding to other agencies/localities, as did those departments that had lost their telephone communications as a result of the AT&T flood.
Local public service departments set up a system of roving apparatus that went through the towns looking for residents who were in need of emergency services. Other departments set up stationary locations to which residents could go for help. Many natural-gas-powered generators were made inoperative when water entered the gas lines through vents and cracks in the piping.
Mutual-aid and local system radio repeaters were affected by downed telephone lines, rendering the system ineffective. Teletypes were also down. The County Police were relocated to the EOC site in Paramus, which soon became overcrowded. To compensate for the flooded County Communications building in Hackensack, the self-sustaining County Communications vehicle was relocated to the Paramus EOC as a backup. The County`s nine regional mutual-aid field communication units were used extensively and were very effective. The mutual-aid organizations called in to the OEM, and we called them using Sprint service. Departments from localities not prone to flooding provided much mutual-aid assistance to flood-affected communities.
At least seven municipalities lost use of their police or fire department headquarters and municipal buildings. Most had time to transfer their radio traffic to other municipalities. Those that didn`t set up temporary radios in other locations such as private homes and unoccupied buildings. In Park Ridge, for example, a base station communications radio center was established in a firefighter`s home. The apparatus was stationed outside the house, and responses to calls were made from that location. Communities also reverted to handheld radios and patrolling police cars.
When the radios went down, so did the alerting and call-back systems. One of the problems was that batteries in the pagers were depleted after long hours of emergency response. This created a void in call-back systems. Most responders went home exhausted and did not think about changing batteries (that is, if they had any available; many stores were out of batteries, flashlights, candles, and drinking water). Those who had lost power in their homes could not recharge batteries.
LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED
The loss of radio communications added to the magnitude of this disaster. Bergen County is assessing its mutual-aid and local radio repeater systems to explore ways to prevent such a major breakdown in the future and devise ways to maintain a viable communication system even if telephone service is out.
Off-duty personnel could not always be reached, especially after the radios went down. In some cases, this was because exhausted personnel did not change the batteries in their pagers. In the future, when an emergency is anticipated, personnel must make sure to have batteries on hand and that their pagers are working. Also, we are looking into alternative ways to activate the pager system without depending on phone service.
The State Public Utilities Commission is looking into the AT&T/Bell Atlantic situation from the standpoint of preventing a repeat of the communications crisis caused by the flooding of their facilities.
We are looking into establishing a radio mutual-aid communications system that does not rely on telephones.
SKIP BISCHOFF is the fire marshal of Bergen County, New Jersey.