City looking at disaster communications alternatives

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 8, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

Suffolk’s participation Thurs-day in a statewide series of mock counterterrorism drills reiterated the city’s need for a more effective way of communicating during disaster situations, officials said.

&uot;It’s a top priority,&uot; said Capt. Jim T. Judkins, the city’s emergency services coordinator.

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The city’s experience in the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel last September had already brought the point home, he said.

&uot;We have got to be able to communicate with people,&uot; Judkins said. &uot;A lack of knowledge is what scares people the most.

&uot;We need to be able to get them information they need to base their decisions on.&uot;

Although most Hampton Roads radio stations devoted extensive coverage to post-Isabel public service announcements, the city can’t bank on these stations as being the only source of information during a disaster.

&uot;These days, it’s not financially feasible with the larger commercial broadcasting stations,&uot; Judkins said.

Ideally, the city would have a dedicated low-frequency radio station where Suffolk emergency information would be played continuously during a disaster.

But providing coverage to all of the city’s 430 square miles would require multiple stations, making it extremely cost-prohibitive.

Both Judkins and Dennis Craff, city spokesman, say the city should look into the possibility of activating ham radio operators to inform the public during disasters.

Ham radio operators can provide communication when conventional means are down, largely because they can use portable towers and other infrastructure, Judkins said.

Despite the vast technology on today’s market, a return to the old-fashion tried-and-true means of communication might end up being the best way to get in touch with people during large-scale emergencies.

If cell towers, power and phone lines are wiped out for extended periods of time, organized town hall or neighborhood meetings, flyers or door-to-door visits might be the only way for people to stay in touch with one another, Judkins said.