Tennessee flood response aided by out-of-town cellphones

When deadly floods knocked out all communications but radio in rural Tennessee last weekend, emergency officials had a new tool at their disposal

APTOPIX Tennessee Flooding
APTOPIX Tennessee Flooding

When deadly floods knocked out all communications but radio in rural Tennessee last weekend, an emergency official took advantage of a new system developed for this kind of emergency: He redirected 911 calls to several cellphones in a neighboring city.

Humphreys County officials put the new procedure in place after the Christmas Day 2020 bombing in Nashville according to Bobby Brown director of the county's 911 center in the hard-hit town of Waverly. The explosion seriously damaged a key AT&T network facility, causing temporary phone and data service outages and disruptions over hundreds of miles in the southern U.S.

“We learned a lot of things at the Christmas explosion that helped this process move along a lot quicker than probably we would have, had we not had that experience," Brown told reporters Thursday.

Emergency officials had to make quick decisions during Saturday’s flooding, which killed 20 people and took out houses, roads, cellphone towers and telephone lines in the county of about 18,000 people 60 miles (96 kilometers) west of Nashville. The area was pummeled with rain that was triple the amount forecast, shattering the state's one-day record. More than 270 homes were destroyed and 160 were seriously damaged.

Brown said the 911 center called him early Saturday, asking for more staff to handle the load of flood-related calls coming in. He couldn’t get out of his flooded driveway, but was able to redirect some workers who had just left back to work.

Then at some point, the center in Waverly lost all internet, 911 and phone services, and had only radio left, so calls automatically were forwarded to a neighboring county’s 911 center, adding to the influx dispatchers were already experiencing there, he said.

Brown was able to get six cellphones from McEwen police, and he recruited volunteers, including his wife and firefighters’ spouses, to help transfer 911 calls to them, he said.

The calls were flipped from the other county to the cellphones within 45 minutes, Brown said.

“We got lucky that they were there," he said.

For about six hours on Saturday, emergency officials in McEwen and Waverly used a combination of radios and phones to maintain 911 service, Brown said. Later that night, Verizon delivered a mobile pod to get cell coverage at the center in Waverly and AT&T set up a mobile unit, he said.

At noon Sunday, enough communication lines were back up to transfer 911 calls from the cellphones back to the administrative phones at the call center in Waverly. By early Monday morning, the center was fully functioning again, Brown said.

Brown estimated that 40 to 50 calls were coming into 911 at certain points. The center had two dispatchers working at the time of the floods, which is adequate staffing “every other day of the year,” he said.

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