March 2, 2005 By Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor
When Charley came through, however, things got interesting. Charley made its way up the west coast, turned right toward the Port Charlotte area and dismantled most forms of communication -- except the Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System (SLERS).
Hurricane Charley was followed in short order by Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. The 62-day siege produced widespread devastation and kept state officials going around the clock just to keep up.
When Bill Tinsley, M/A-COM director of State Operations for Florida, received a request from the governor's office early one morning during the height of the hurricanes to get to the emergency operations center (EOC) pronto, he knew he was in for a long haul.
He grabbed four shirts and four pairs of pants and headed for the EOC.
"When I got there, I thought the real disaster was at the emergency operations center," he said. "Every cellular commercial carrier, every wireline company, the local county sheriff's systems -- everything either got damaged or impacted in some way where it wasn't providing reliable communications. I'm not going to say there wasn't some police department with a radio system operating somewhere, but nothing with the wide area capability of SLERS."
Within 72 hours, the chaos settled at the EOC, but the work was nonstop until the hurricanes subsided. That meant keeping communications open between 14 state agencies and the EOC through SLERS.
"You think of normal things like the highway patrol trying to prevent looting or directing traffic, or the Department of Transportation checking bridges to make sure they haven't been weakened and are going to fall, or the bridges had already fallen in and all the rerouting and logistics they had to come up with," Tinsley said.
Six bridges were felled or damaged to the point where they were unusable. The National Guard was on the system helping with traffic control and keeping looting to a minimum. The state Department of Environmental Protection was out making sure wastewater and sewage tanks didn't overflow. "We just kept getting clobbered," Tinsley said. "The only part of Florida that didn't get affected was south of Miami in the Keys. Every place else in the state got slammed."
SLERS paid off for the department when a hurricane dismantled a paint and body shop, spewing chemicals in a local area.
"Nobody ever missed a conversation," Tinsley said, adding that M/A-COM distributed more than 500 radios to city, county and private personnel to maintain communications during the storms and amid the constant personnel movement. "We were deploying, redeploying and really moving people around."
SLERS is an 800 MHz trunked system, allowing for a large number of users to share a small number of channels. M/A-COM staff and personnel from various state agencies traveled hundreds of thousands of miles testing SLERS' mobile coverage levels, according to the company, and the tests certified that 98 percent of Florida and its waters up to 25 miles offshore are reachable by SLERS.
It's also an IP-based system connecting approximately 300 radio frequency towers throughout the state.
"It's a huge, IP-based and Cisco-centric wide area network that happens to run public safety voice traffic over it," said Chuck Shaughnessy, vice president of operations for M/A-COM's Wireless Systems unit. "It dumps into IP packets, blasts it all over the network and goes all over the state. We operate that with our own people and subcontractors statewide."
Shaughnessy said SLERS looks like an office building's local area network, but in terms of numbers of nodes in the state, SLERS is bigger than the worldwide network of Tyco Electronics, M/A-COM's parent
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