What does it take to keep emergency communications going? How does it work? Who uses it and takes care of it?
Bradley County Emergency Management Agency is responsible for managing three of the critical emergency communications towers for Cleveland and Bradley County’s emergency agencies.
Cleveland and Bradley County co-own the three towers and they are responsible for maintaining two others.
“We have built-in redundancy for the communications system to ensure we won’t ever be without emergency communications,” said CBCEMA Director Troy Spence.
From the time a call for help passes through a phone line to a 911 communications call-taker and the first transmission is made to the appropriate responding agency, the data is protected.
Security of the tower sites and communications system is paramount, according to Spence.
The seemingly simple process of communications is much more complex when it comes to public safety — from the programming of the radios by Jerry Johnson Jr., and maintenence scheduling along with constant checks of the system through 911 and on the ground by Jeff Gunter, to making sure each site has power to operate.
Each site has generators to provide power in case of electricity outages.
Gunter works to maintain generators and security systems such as cameras that monitor the buildings and towers which hold a number of antennaes used to transmit and receive communication from area agencies.
Technology changes during the past few years have prompted officials to upgrade equipment for the future of 911, known as NG911 or Next Generation (NexGen).
Narrow and high band waves flow through the towers to mobile or set stations in the city and county.
Cleveland Police Department and the 10th Judicial Drug Task Force utilize 800 megahertz radio systems.
Spence said these are fully-digital systems which provide clear voice technology.
Analog VHF (Very High Frequency) waves can get dirty, just as the connections and wiring leading to the antennaes and receivers or repeaters at the sites.
“Through a good maintenence program, we make sure we have optimum output and continually fine-tune the equipment used for public safety communications,” Spence said.
Sometimes when a call regarding an emergency comes in to the Bradley County 911 Center, emotions can be running high and clarity of the caller is critical.
When a dispatcher reaches the appropriate first responder, the work to maintain the communications towers ensures the system operates properly.
The towers are also a host to others in the community who need communications.
Spence said businesses and schools and even radio stations lease options to place their equipment for transmission.
It seems something as simple as pressing a button to communicate is all there is to it.
Strict licensing and guidelines set by state agencies where some towers are located have to be followed.
One such tower sits high atop a mountain in rural Polk County.
The tower site is fenced for security and cameras are placed strategically around the perimeter and inside the communications building that houses radios and repeaters for emergency services and others.
Lightning strikes have burned up systems in the past. Being in a high position, towers are typically hit often.
“We have grounded the towers and equipment very well and haven’t had near as many issues due to lightning,” Gunter explained.
Alarms will go off on occasion, alerting Gunter of an impending or possible problem.
He has incorporated a program where he can check systems without having to make a long drive up the mountain and physically check the site.
Viewing several cameras at the sites, from his cellphone, desktop computer or pad, Gunter can determine if a trip is warranted.
“If a generator doesn’t operate properly, I will know it,” he said.
There is much more hidden from plain view, floating in the airwaves, to keep Bradley County and Cleveland communicating in the event of someone’s emergency.