Emergency communications exercise held at fire academy

Friday, March 12, 2010

SHELBYVILLE - Emergency communications units from local, state and federal agencies operating in Middle Tennessee gathered this week at the Tennessee Fire Service and Codes Enforcement Academy for an exercise designed to improve inter-agency communications in the case of a major disaster or other emergency.

This was the second in a series of exercises held in each of the state's grand divisions; the first was held at Paris Landing State Park.

More than 80 people participated in the event, which included classroom sessions on Tuesday followed by a full-scale exercise on Wednesday. More than 20 large communications units were brought to the exercise, along with two dozen communications-equipped SUVs, according to Jeremy Heidt of Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

Bedford County Emergency Management Agency had been scheduled to participate but had to cancel due to conflicts, said BCEMA director Scott Johnson.


Heidt said it's important for agencies that don't normally work together to establish policies and protocols that can be used in the case of a major disaster, search-and-rescue operation or other emergency. There are technological issues to overcome -- for example, some agencies use digital equipment, while others use analog. The exercise used "cross-banded" communications, duplicating some broadcasts over more than one frequency so that all participants could tune in.

Even agencies that can communicate may not realize they can do so, because they may have different names for some of the available radio frequencies.

Heidt said Tennessee was the first state to offer special "communications leader" training for those tasked with heading up inter-agency communications efforts during a disaster.


Heidt said that locations such as the fire academy or state parks may actually be used to gather communications units in the case of an actual emergency. During the exercise, mobile command centers were placed at various locations across the fire school campus -- near the classroom building, near the fire hall, near the administration building and so on.

Because training uses a simulated disaster situation, the participants were briefed to use the phrase "This is a real emergency" if something out of the ordinary were to take place in real life. Event planners were watching area storms.

Participating agencies included emergency management teams from Cannon, Coffee, Davidson, Franklin, Lawrence, Lincoln, Moore, Rutherford, Smith, Wayne, Williamson and Wilson counties; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and a number of state agencies, including Tennessee Department of Transportation and Tennessee Highway Patrol.


Johnson said Bedford County's communications and command trailer is currently being renovated and wouldn't have been available for the drill anyway. He said, however, that the drill was an important exercise for building inter-agency communications. That can come in handy not only during an emergency but during a major event like the Celebration where emergency preparedness is key.

"Each year during the Celebration we request the Homeland Security District 6 Communications Trailer," said Johnson, ".... as well as the local HAM radio club communications van. They deploy to our public safety staging area located near the Celebration grounds." That puts resources in place in case of a major incident.

Johnson said that one local use of homeland security grants in recent years is to upgrade local radio equipment to improve local agencies' ability to communicate with each other.