National Park storm shows need for reliable communications

Two radio repeaters lost power during severe weather, information came in from 'technology in... cars', says Deputy Superintendent


By Lance Coleman
Knoxville News-Sentinel

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NAT'L PARK, Tenn. — It is usually the one scenario not considered that throws any crisis plan into a tailspin and forces those relying on that plan to scramble, said one Great Smoky Mountains National Park official.

Deputy Superintendent Kevin Fitzgerald said that in the case of the July 5 storm, the challenge was communication. Park rangers depend on systems functioning in an emergency, but the reason for the emergency — in this case a severe storm — significantly affected communication, he said.

"We lost power to a couple of radio repeaters in key locations," he said. "Information we were getting was from people using OnStar or other technology in their cars, so you're getting stuff that is third-, fourth- and fifth-hand."

Fitzgerald said the storm and aftermath brought out the best in the National Park Service staff and crews and in all the area agencies that assisted.

"We confirmed we have exceptional staff in terms of capabilities to function in very stressful situations and address, prioritize and triage multiple incidents," he said. "They just step up when we have situations like this."

Fitzgerald thanked those personnel from the Blount County Fire Department, Sheriff's Office and Rescue Squad; the Townsend Police Department and Volunteer Fire Department; Sevier County Electric System; Fort Loudoun Electric Cooperative; and the Blount County chapter of the American Red Cross.

"If you don't have those relationships established, it is more of a crisis," he said. "As a result, something that was still pretty bad and very traumatic was managed exceptionally well as a mutual agency response."

Fitzgerald said the hard storm that downed trees throughout the park left some roads exposed to the threat of rockslides. Rangers will also determine if they need to remove trees that fell into rivers. Those trees may affect the river current and eventually damage or destroy retaining walls near roads, he said.

Fitzgerald said one of the most difficult aspects in responding to this emergency was that two people died and several were injured. Park personnel worked with the families of those who were affected, he said.

"We fulfilled that role," he said. "It is difficult role, but we have folks who are very good at doing a very difficult task."

Molly Schroer, public affairs specialist with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said the following areas remain closed: Little River Road from Metcalf Bottoms to the Townsend Wye; Tremont Road above the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont; the Abrams Creek entrance road; and Abrams Creek campground.

Copyright 2012 Knoxville News-Sentinel Co.

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