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New satellite phones create communications web to aid disaster recovery

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By Kellie Parkin

The Levy County Emergency Management has filled a gap in the communications loop throughout the region this week with the arrival of eight new satellite phones, according to LCEM Director Mark Johnson.

“This plugs a huge communications hole in Levy County,” Johnson said. “If the area is hit with a major storm and all other communications are down, the satellite phones create an emergency responder communications web. We’ll be able to know exactly what the needs of each community are.” 

Inglis, Yankeetown, Cedar Key, Chiefland, Fanning Springs, and Williston will each be issued one phone during the official hurricane season – June 1 to Nov. 30. The Town of Bronson will not need one because LCEM is headquartered there. 

“Satellite phones are the last measure only when we exhaust all other communications,” Johnson said. “In the past we have always issued one to the Cedar Key Fire Department but now we can do this with the other municipalities.”

The phones will remain Levy County property at all times, and an agreement will be signed by the respective city managers, council presidents or mayors consenting to specific terms of usage.

When hurricane season is over, the satellite phones will be returned to LCEM where they will be recalibrated and will receive any needed maintenance. 

The price tag for each phone is $1,595. Each phone also costs $39.95 per month and $1.49 per minute. When used during officially declared disasters, monies spent on minute usage are eligible for reimbursement. If a municipality uses its assigned satellite phone for something other than disaster related business, the interlocal agreement states the municipality will be responsible for the accrued costs. 

The eight phones and first year of service is completely covered by an Emergency Management Operations Center Enhancement Grant from the Florida state Division of Emergency Management totaling $27,259.

“It’s a bargain – you can spend a lot more on these phones,” said Jon Hill of Sky Base Communications, who personally delivered the inventory from his Tallahassee office.

Hill said communicating by satellite phone is dependable and prudent. “The phones operate using 60 low-earth satellites – you’ve got to be outside so you’re phone can see the sky… they’re pretty close to 100 percent reliable.” he said. “These devices have served the state of Florida so well in recent disasters.”

Two satellite phones that are not planned for municipality assignment will stay with LCEM and be distributed during emergencies. One would go to the health department coordinating the shelters and the other would go to the Central Staging Area – most likely the Williston airport – which acts as the main point of distribution for FEMA supplies.

The eight new phones will be added to LCEM’s current working inventory for a total of 11 satellite phones: one obtained last year, and two that are nearly a decade old.

Yankeetown Mayor Dawn Marie Clary is looking forward to the added communications support. “It’s a wonderful present from Emergency Management and very important,” she said. “We live on the edge here.”

Clary said she appreciates the work of Mark Johnson and the County. “I’m impressed and I truly appreciate their efforts,” she said. “Hopefully we won’t need to use (the phone).”

Williston City Council President Debra Jones, who is also the emergency management representative for the city, said Williston was lucky during the 2004 storms to only lose power for about 30 minutes total. “I’m happy to say that the city only lost power briefly,” she said. “It will be great, though, to be in contact with the outside world if we need it.”

The Williston Police and Fire departments are located in the same complex, Jones said, so that will most likely be where the council decides to house the satellite phone during hurricane season. “From there we can take it wherever we need to, but I believe that’s the best place for it,” she said.

“Communications is key, and this empowers the municipalities to work even more closely with us,” Johnson said. “Our job is public safety – it’s our number one priority.”