By Robin Hartman
In April, severe storms in Leslie County knocked out electricity at the Kentucky Emergency Warning System (KEWS) tower, the network epicenter for emergency communications among multiple agencies in the area, located about 23 miles south of Hyden.
The backup generator had failed to start, and uprooted trees and broken limbs blocked access to the tower. If the tower wasn’t repaired in 48 hours, the emergency battery back-up would die and communications capability for agencies like Emergency Medical Services, fire departments, police and the National Weather Service would be lost.
Thankfully, KEWS reached out to the Kentucky Division of Forestry (KDF), which had the expertise and personnel to restore access to the tower.
“With the help of Jake Hall and his Division of Forestry team from Hazard, we had access to the tower less than 24 hours after the storm came through,” said Wade Parker, a district supervisor with the KEWS Branch within the Commonwealth Office of Technology.
Working Together to Improve Communication and Safety
The partnership between the two agencies began in January 2019, when both recognized that each possessed capabilities beneficial to the other.
KDF had just purchased a new statewide radio system for its team but no longer had the personnel with expertise in two-way radio communications needed to maintain or repair it. At the same time, many of the KEWS towers were becoming more difficult to access, as weather events or natural deterioration made the mountain-top locations nearly unreachable.
With a fleet of bulldozers and the skilled personnel to operate them, KDF has provided the workforce and resources to clear and repair tower roads when needed. KEWS is helping install and maintain the new state-wide radio system for KDF.
A second event in April, a road slip following heavy rains, rendered a tower in Whitley County totally inaccessible. But the KDF team from Pineville went to work, cleared the road and provided access to the tower within 48 hours.
“We appreciate the partnership we’ve forged with KEWS,” said Division of Forestry Director Brandon Howard. “Their expertise in radio communications and our heavy equipment expertise have proven to pair well together. The opportunity for our agencies to close these gaps has been important for us to deliver emergency services to the citizens of the Commonwealth.”
First established in 1979, KEWS has evolved into a statewide public safety communications network that now uses wireless capabilities to allow public safety officials to access centralized databases, such as criminal history and vehicle registration. It allows agencies to share information in real-time, while also transmitting and receiving directives from the emergency operations center. Today, all of Kentucky’s state-level first responders, such as Kentucky State Police and KDF firefighters, as well as some local first responders, rely on the KEWS network for their communication needs.
Division of Forestry’s New Radio System
The forestry division’s six field offices utilize as many as nine repeaters in 47 locations across the state to communicate with field staff and rely on towers to transmit the signal. A message sent to one repeater gets quickly transmitted to others and accessed by staff via mobile radio.
KDF’s new system replaces an aging 20-year-old system of repeaters that relied on telephone lines and could quickly become unusable with extreme weather conditions. The new, modular-type repeaters can more easily be repaired, and because they’re IP wireless, connections are much more reliable.
The cost of the new system was approximately $500,000, but the maintenance and repair contract, which averaged $20,000 per year, is being saved thanks to the new agreement.
“Our hope for this new partnership will allow us both to be better stewards of Kentucky’s resources,” said Parker. “On behalf of the KEWS team, we are grateful for the new partners we now have at Kentucky’s Division of Forestry.”
The Division of Forestry works to protect, conserve and enhance Kentucky’s forest resources through stewardship and forest protection programs. Learn more here.