The overall impression is communication was successful between all entities; however, the Red Cross did mention that they felt they received information from the newscast, rather than being directly contacted with the information.
In addition, the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office After-Action Report did mention initial incompatible radio frequencies. Radio systems, landlines, and cell phones were the main means of communication. However, one interviewee mentioned the possible use of an 800 MHz trunk system that could be used by all parties next time.
The incident command center was the designated recipient of information, and the entities, in turn, contacted their staff via their communication systems. Some specific observations based on the interviews and/or the after-action reports are identified below.
At the incident command center, briefings with written objectives were conducted at least twice a day. The status of the previous days objectives were updated at each briefing.
GVW Fire Department Communication
The GVW Fire Department used its radio system (VHF or UHF) and Nextel walkie-talkie to communicate. The fire frequency is a shared radio frequency.
GVW Fire Department Dispatch
In the GVW Fire Department After-Action Report, there were two improvement items noted for communication. First “[fire] dispatch should provide more detailed information on location of victims requesting assistance.” Second, “[fire] dispatch should coordinate received information between positions for distribution to all agencies.”
Incident Command Communication
A local building was designated as the incident command center, and phone communication, both landline and Internet capability, had to be installed by Aiken County communication staff. It was established as a priority.
Law Enforcement Communication
The majority of the law enforcement community has an 800 MHz radio system or access to it.
State of South Carolina
Initially, “incident information was not adequately shared among responding agencies due to incompatible radio frequencies” as reported in the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office After-Action Report. However, the State of South Carolina provided additional communication capabilities through an 800 MHz radio system.
In the Aiken County Emergency Services After-Action Report, it was noted that “all support agencies (Salvation Army, Red Cross, South Carolina Department of Social Services, etc.) were not kept informed of recovery status. Although daily status meetings were held at the Unified Command Post, the information was not communicated with the Emergency Operations Center.”
Means of Communication
The main means of communication to the general public was the use of Reverse 911® and local broadcasts on television and radio.
After the evacuation, a media area was established near the incident command post. the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office scheduled and conducted media briefings frequently. A Spanish interpreter was provided to communicate emergency information to the public.
Nightly town hall meetings were conducted to discuss relief efforts, impacts, pet concerns, progress, and reentry concerns. Norfolk Southern, the Red Cross, and mental health entities were invited to attend.
A new 2-1-1 system was used to provide information to evacuees on the social services available to them. The Salvation Army/United Way manned the telephone line and was a “talking human resource directory” for residents of the community. Information ranged from what we can do to help, to what agencies can help, to where we can go to get food. The 2-1-1 system moved phone traffic away from the 911 system and allowed the 911 system to remain open for emergency use.
The 2-1-1 system for Aiken County “received calls immediately but had no info[rmation] to provide initially. 2-1-1 received updated information via television news report. As a result, 2-1-1 personnel did not learn key information such as the shelter-in-place message that had been transmitted to residents” as reported in the Aiken Emergency Services After-Action Report. In addition, 2-1-1 is not accessible via cell phone.
The Aiken County Sheriff’s Office prepared fact sheets for almost every day of the incident informing the public of the incident, what was happening, what was to be done, etc. A sample fact sheet is found in Appendix 4.
In cooperation with the State of South Carolina, Norfolk Southern, and other entities involved in environmental matters, a fact sheet was prepared on “Things to do Upon Your Return Home.” This can be found in Appendix 5.
Public Service Announcements
Public service announcements were produced and broadcast to the public regarding housekeeping and food handling once residents returned to their homes.
The Aiken County Sheriff’s Office was the public information officer for the incident command, while the State of South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control was the state coordinator of information. The two entities worked together for the length of the incident.
Less than 100 yards from the wreck, Bell South had a switching station that served the County and City of Aiken and cell phone service. This became a top priority of Bell South to have a HazMat team from Bell South get to the switching station to make sure the equipment was working. They were afraid that the chlorine would ruin the equipment. If that happened, they could have lost communication in the county and made it difficult to communicate. Bell South was afraid of disruption of local phone service, which did not occur.
February 6, 2006