When Hurricane Katrina hit Mississippi ten years ago, record storm surges and winds took out cell phone towers and destroyed communications systems. It also exposed weaknesses in technology used by county workers and officials statewide. Vicki Helfrich is with the Mississippi Wireless Communication Commission.
"A lot of entities had their own separate radio systems, but weren't able to communicate with one another during any type of emergency event," said Helfrich.
Helfrich says the commission was formed two months before the 2005 storm, and they immediately began work on a statewide wireless radio system. It was completed in 2013 with a $200 million dollar federal grant.
"We've built out 144 towers across the state. Every site is linked with point-to-point microwave back haul. So, we have a self-contained network. Battery back-up, we have propane tanks, so if we lose power our sites don't go down," said Helfrich.
The Mississippi Wireless Information Network can run on back-up power for up to three weeks. Helfrich says, there are nearly 23,000 users, that includes state and federal agencies, fire, police, and emergency management associations. Robert Bradford heads Adams County EMA and used the system to find a missing woman.
"And we were able to talk with MEMA directly, instead of phone lines. The MSWIN comes in handy when you talking far as reaching a large populace," said Bradford.
Counties don't have to pay a fee for the system, but they do have to buy the radios, which start at about $1,300. Some counties haven't made the switch because of the cost.