Radio failure impairs storm response


Sandra Chapman/Eyewitness News Investigators

Indianapolis, April 3 - In the midst of severe weather which included severe thunderstorms and tornado warnings for the Indianapolis area, the public safety radio communication system failed. That failure cut communications between local dispatchers and emergency responders.

It's a communications system with a history of break downs and outdated parts. The system failure lasted for about 90-minutes and could not have come at a worse time.

And it's a problem that could happen again.

At the peak of the storm, when torrential rainfall sent downtown fans scattering with 80 mile an hour winds whipping them along the way, Marion County's emergency dispatch system went on the blink. Shawn Failor was working dispatch at the time.

"We couldn't transmit on our radios at all...Anytime we tried to transmit, we just couldn't talk out. Some people could hear the officers but some people couldn't. "

Ray Raney, the Communications Director, explains what happened. "A limb fell on a power line and that created the generator to kick on." And that caused the system to shut down and internally reboot over and over again.

In these circles it's called a "fail-safe." For those working on the front lines, city-county police, fire and ambulance personnel, it's a lost life line.

All 33 dispatchers and controllers on duty had to resort to an old standby. They were forced to use portable radios just like firefighters and police officers use on the street. Failor says it's just not as effective.

"You have so much going on at once, and everyone's trying to talk at once, and it's kind of hard to sort the information out. But it's basically something you just have to do."

And it's not the first time the outdated 15-year old system has failed in time of crisis. Communications Director Raney says it happened in 2004 when the southside tornadoes hit.

"It has happened before and again the dispatchers and the people that work at the consoles do as they're trained."

But Raney admits "hand helds" are no answer to the "dead spots" near Broad Ripple and Geist Reservoir where radio transmissions are hit or miss. He hopes a new 53-million dollar digital system will keep the lines of communication open during storm emergencies.

Failor says they made it through this time. "It was a stressful situation, but everyone handled it very well."

Raney adds "I think we were very fortunate."

MECA, the Metropolitan Emergency Communications Agency, will soon enter negotiations with Motorola for a new digital radio system, which will include 5 new towers and new police radios.   The system is expected to cover 95-percent of Marion county as opposed to the 85-percent coverage now provided.   The only down side is that it will take 18-months before it's up and running.