The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Top Stories

June 17, 2012

FCC proposes emergency use of blimps, drones, weather balloons after disasters

JOPLIN, Mo. — For Beverly Oakes, the cellphone tower that stood about 70 feet from her home at the Plaza Apartments went from being a landmark to a lawn ornament after it was thrown into the building in the May 22, 2011, tornado.

“It looked like crumpled spaghetti,” said Oakes, whose apartment on Rex Avenue was a complete loss.

For Oakes, and other Joplin residents who were scrambling to contact friends and family after the storm, cellphone service was spotty at best the night of the disaster and into the following days. Text messaging was the most reliable form of communication in the immediate aftermath.

But a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission could improve communication after a disaster. The FCC is working on a project that would send emergency communications equipment into the air via drones, weather balloons or blimps after natural disasters when ground communication systems are lost.

The technology already is being used by the military, according to the FCC.

“We’re involved in a number of disaster responses, and that includes things as significant as Katrina or Haiti down to smaller events,” said Jennifer Manner, deputy chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.

“It may be difficult to drive in a cell tower on wheels because the roads may be flooded. There may be limited access into an area if it’s been limited to first responders. The question is, ‘How do you get devices up?’ So we’re looking at a way to get them in using airborne platforms.”

After the Joplin tornado, the FCC received updates once or twice a day from telecommunication companies about the status of their service and worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on restoring communications.

According to an FCC report, the goal would be to have the communications equipment into the disaster area within the first 12 to 18 hours. The idea is that the equipment in the air may be more accessible since it would not be blocked by debris or water on the ground.

The FCC, a mostly policy-driven organization, would coordinate with FEMA and the Federal Aviation Administration. They would work with private companies to actually deploy the equipment.

Would it have helped Joplin?

Mark Morris, information systems director for the city of Joplin, thinks the concept is interesting, but he is unsure how such a system would have affected communications in Joplin after the tornado.

“Thinking back on Joplin, and knowing that we had severe weather for the next 24 to 36 hours after the tornado, I’m not sure how well it would have worked,” Morris said.

Keith Stammer, emergency manager for Joplin and Jasper County, said he thinks the airborne proposal may be a good strategy. But he said he has many questions about the project, such as how much bandwidth it would provide, whether it would be reserved for just emergency responders and whether the disaster would have to be officially declared.

“If the feds were able to bring in drones or blimps with sufficient bandwidth, it would be a great help in communities in a disaster,” said Stammer, who advocates having several communication methods available as backup, such as land lines, cellphones and even ham radio.

“We used every one of those that we possibly could,” he said.

Carrier impact, response

“I was humbled and impressed with how quickly all of the carriers responded,” said Morris, who met with representatives from all the major phone carriers within the first 12 hours of the tornado. “They all pulled out all the stops and recognized the magnitude of the crisis.”

Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Brenda Hill said that of the carrier’s 32 towers in Joplin, only one, near the Home Depot, was destroyed. The main issue was power supply and cut fibers. The company brought in two or three temporary towers after the storm to help, and it never had a total outage, Hill said.

Crystal Davis, crisis communication manager for Sprint, said the company lost two towers but was able to get portable cell towers and an emergency response team to Joplin immediately after the storm.

“We handled the situation as immediately as we could,” Davis said.

Katie Nagus, with media relations for AT&T, said the carrier lost two towers and was back up to 95 percent capacity about 37 hours after the storm.

But Mike Haynes, who works in external affairs for AT&T, said that wasn’t enough considering the number of volunteers who rushed to Joplin. The company sent in several portable towers. Land lines for the company also were affected. Those land lines, Haynes said, have an impact on cellular calls as well.

“You need that backbone to support that wireless network,” he said.

Haynes said the reason most people had some service, like text messaging, is because it takes up less space on the network and does not have to be in real time.

“If the network is congested, it can hold itself in queue until space is available,” he said. “That allows texting to sometimes be a really powerful tool in those circumstances where you have a lot of congestion.”

By the Friday after the Sunday storm, AT&T had installed 18,000 feet of fiber cable and 10,000 feet of copper wiring, and had it in service. The company also lost a large aerial fiber system that ran north and south near St. John’s Regional Medical Center and that served Freeman Hospital West. That was a priority, Haynes said.

Phone service

AT&T is still rebuilding the land-line network as Joplin rebuilds in the tornado destruction zone.

Text Only
Top Stories
  • r041814capbus4.jpg Funding shortfall could hinder public transportation in Southeast Kansas

    For the past two years, Pittsburg State University sophomore Travis Cook has been using public transportation to get to and from his classes. He began using the bus his freshman year, when he didn’t have a vehicle to drive even to the grocery store — which is said to be the case for many who use the service.

    April 18, 2014 2 Photos

  • Bruner denied change of venue for murder trial

    Circuit Judge Gayle Crane has denied a change of venue for a defendant charged with fatally shooting an assistant football coach at Missouri Southern State University. The attorney for Jeffrey Bruner claimed pretrial publicity as the reason for seeking a change of venue in Jasper County Circuit Court.

    April 18, 2014

  • Russell family sues city, Joplin police

    Family members of a teenage girl whose suicide a year ago brought them into conflict with police officers and emergency medical technicians are suing the city and the Joplin Police Department. Kevin and Julissa Russell and their son, Brant Russell, are the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in Jasper County Circuit Court. The action filed on the Russells’ behalf by Kansas City attorney Andrew Protzman names the city, the Police Department and Officers Austin Wolf and Tyler Christensen as defendants.

    April 18, 2014

  • Kansas Regents stick with social media policy

    After directing a committee to study a controversial social media policy and make recommended changes, the Kansas Board of Regents appears to not be changing the policy at all. It’s left some in academia baffled by why it appointed the work group in the first place.

    April 18, 2014

  • Britain Easter Pilgri_Cast.jpg SLIDESHOW: Good Friday observances around the world Around the world, Christians are coming together in observance of Good Friday, which they believe was the day Jesus was crucified. Here are some photos from Good Friday commemorations around the world.

    April 18, 2014

  • Missouri House votes to expand sales tax exemptions

    Pizza parlors, doughnut shops and even convenience stores all could be in line for a tax break on the food that they make and sell as a result of a measure moving through the Missouri Legislature.

    April 18, 2014

  • 041714 School safe rooms4_72.jpg Joplin school district readies community safe rooms for storm season

    Thousands of Joplin residents will soon be able to stay safe during storms in some of the region’s newest shelters. Community safe rooms at Cecil Floyd, Stapleton, McKinley and Eastmorland elementary schools, which double as gymnasiums, and Junge Field, which will double as a field house, are expected to be open within the next few weeks, according to Mike Johnson, the school district’s director of construction.

    April 17, 2014 2 Photos

  • 041714 Treble Makers.jpg Carl Junction ‘Treble Makers’ to sing at Springfield Cardinals’ stadium

    Next month, 75 Carl Junction sixth-grade students will sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Hammons Field before a Springfield Cardinals game. And with more than 600 parents, family members and other residents planning to attend, the May 3 event has been dubbed “Carl Junction Day.”

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • Public hearing set on posed TIF district

    Financial details of a proposed new tax increment financing district for the Silver Creek Galleria area will be discussed in detail at an April 28 public hearing, members of the city’s TIF Commission were told Thursday. Chris Williams, a TIF attorney representing the city of Joplin, told the panel the Thursday meeting was intended to walk commissioners through the public hearing steps.

    April 17, 2014

  • Volunteer projects spark two bills in Jefferson City

    Bills moving through the Missouri House and Senate were inspired by a volunteer project in Carl Junction last year that stalled over a question of whether those volunteers had to be paid prevailing wage under Missouri law. “This bill is very simple. All it says is if someone is a volunteer, they won’t be forced to be paid prevailing wage,” state Rep. Charlie Davis, R-Webb City, told lawmakers during a hearing on his bill last week.

    April 17, 2014