Throughout the night on March 2-3, 2020, a supercell thunderstorm traveled through the middle of Tennessee, producing several violent tornadoes that wrecked multiple buildings and took several lives. Shortly after midnight on March 3, an EF-3 tornado with winds up to 165 miles per hour carved a path over 50 miles long through Nashville, severely damaging the local airport. As the supercell moved east, 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.
The EF-4 tornado destroyed over 100 structures, including part of a local public safety radio tower. With this critical component damaged, responders turned to FirstNet to communicate and carry out damage assessment.
Deployables and Devices
As the tornado tore through Putnam County and into the city of Cookeville, it severely damaged part of the Tennessee Advanced Communications Network (TACN). Managed by the Tennessee Highway Patrol, TACN is the state’s land mobile radio system, providing a single system for emergency responders across the state to communicate.
The TACN tower hit by the tornado 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.
Tennessee Highway Patrol – FirstNet subscribers – were able to use their FirstNet devices to organize response. Troopers without FirstNet smartphones used other devices connected to FirstNet wireless routers in their patrol cars to make calls and mobilize responders.
In addition to using the SatCOLTs to communicate across agencies during disaster mitigation, public safety agencies in the area relied on the connectivity from these assets to assist with the President’s visit to Cookeville immediately following the tornado. With the radio tower damaged, FirstNet was crucial to ensuring connectivity to manage the President’s visit to the small town. Without the support of FirstNet and the SatCOLTs, the county would not have had a single platform to interact with other responding state and local agencies.
Communication and Coordination Across Agencies
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.
Built for Public Safety’s Unique Needs
During natural disasters or any major event, first responders need the ability to reliably and securely communicate and share data. With FirstNet, America’s nationwide public safety broadband network, responders have dedicated bandwidth to ensure they can connect during every incident. With features like priority and preemption and deployable assets, the network is built to meet the unique needs of first responders.
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 (SatCOLTs) tailored to our needs, was an essential part of our plan and is why we quickly reached out to FirstNet.”
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