First Responders Prepared For Disaster?

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Knoxville (WVLT) - If Wednesday's earthquake had caused major damage, authorities say Knox County's E911 center is prepared and now better equipped to communicate with emergency responders during any disaster.

Volunteer TV's Gary Loe takes a look at how Homeland Security concerns have improved communication here among emergency agencies.

A new Homeland Security department study released Wednesday ranked 75 U.S. cities on their emergency agencies' ability to communicate in a disaster. The report says only 6 U.S. cities have made adequate upgrades since the 9-11 terror attacks.

Knoxville was not part of the study, but the executive director of Knox County's E911 center is now asking for an evaluation. He says Knox County's center underwent significant upgrades since 9-11 and now ranks among the top in the nation.

This E911 system based on Bernard Street in North Knoxville consolidates city and county police, fire, and ambulance answering and dispatching. Executive Director Bob Coker says this system allows first responders from separate agencies to communicate during local or regional emergencies.

"All those are here in one room, everybody's able to talk, been able to use the technology to tie everybody together," Coker said.

A technology upgrade of a state-of-the-art 800 megahertz radio system connected by a series of electronic towers fixed communication problems, which previously prevented emergency workers from talking with each other.

"But once they get to the scene, they've got to be able to communicate with those troops. If it's not, it's going back to the days of the pony express almost, they're literally running and passing notes back if those radios don't work," Coker said.

Homeland security funds pooled from Knox and neighboring counties paid for a communications van, which is programmed for all emergency responders in a 13 county district.

Training exercises allow testing capabilities of the system and how agencies work together before real-life situations force the plan into action during life and death situations.

"if they can't communicate, it's just another body standing around. It's absolutely essential when they get there, they've got to be able to talk to each other," Coker said.

The E911 center's annual operating budget is about 6 million dollars. It's funded through Knoxville and Knox County government contributions, and 911 tariffs on land line phone bills, plus some money from cell phone companies.

By the way, Anderson, Loudon, and Blount Counties are planning upgrades to a similar emergency radio system...