One-of-a-kind Network Helps Cape Towns Weather Storms

Aug 7, 2018

The Barnstable County Sheriff's Department owns and operates a mobile communications truck that can be used to monitor large events, help control fires and act as an incident command center during storms or other emergencies.
Credit Kathryn Eident

The Cape’s unique geography is a draw for visitors and tourists, but it can also make the region especially vulnerable when a severe storm strikes.

So local authorities have assembled a one-of-a-kind local network, complete with its own radio system, that stands at the ready to help us weather storms more safely.

It’s the middle of one of the nor’easters that slammed Cape Cod last March. Radio calls are coming in to the National Weather Service in Taunton describing power outages, downed trees, flooded roads, and other issues.

In Barnstable, a group of specially-trained officials is also monitoring conditions from their station at the old county jailhouse. They include meteorologists, utility company representatives, emergency officials, and others. They call their pop-up command base the Multi-Agency Coordination Center (MACC). It’s the only one of its kind in Massachusetts, and it opens during major storms or emergencies, said Dennis Deputy Fire Chief Robert Brown.

“The MACC is just one big resource center,” he said. “They have a very large inventory and collection of data that helps us work our way through this.”

The MACC arose out of the realization that if the region’s two bridges go down, it could be days before outside help can come in, Brown said.

“We kind of consider ourselves an island down here,” he said.

Since it was founded in the mid-2000s, the MACC has become a critical support to help Cape towns prepare for, and cope with, storms. The MACC’s more than 40 members often begin working days before a storm hits—watching its path, coordinating volunteers and staff, and marshaling resources. During a storm, the MACC keeps track of power outages, road blocks, and the region’s shelter system, among other things.

To do all this, the MACC uses the same cell phone and internet connections as we do, to communicate while the power is still on. But if a cell tower or the electricity goes out, radio takes center stage.

Most Cape police and fire departments use similar frequencies, including one supported by the state police, to communicate on a regular basis. If one frequency is compromised, officials can switch to a different one.

Towns in an emergency can also tie in to a mobile communications truck operated by the Barnstable County Sheriff’s office. The ambulance-shaped truck is packed with radios that monitor all Cape police and fire departments, plus the Coast Guard and the state police. 

Barnstable County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy of Technical Services Ralph Swenson sits at one of two consoles in the department's mobile emergency communications truck.
Credit Kathryn Eident

Barnstable County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy of Technical Services Ralph Swenson says the truck also has its own communications tower to send images, video and text message, and a conference space that doubles as an incident command headquarters. It even has its own drone.

“We can basically bring the communication center to them,” he said. “This also has some vehicular repeaters…so we can actually become the radio tower for a given area and provide communications support to a multiple group of agencies.”

Swenson says in the 14 years they’ve owned the truck, the sheriff’s office has used it for everything from keeping an Outer Cape police station online during maintenance work, to monitoring large road races, and even assisting with forest fires.

But if the sheriff’s van can’t get on the road in a storm, or it gets stuck in one location, officials at the MACC in Barnstable have yet still another way to stay in touch.

The sound it makes is reminiscent of a 1990s-era dial-up internet tone, but this system doesn’t operate on a fiber network, or even an old-fashioned phone line. It’s a short-wave radio, sometimes called “ham” radio.

These types of radios are simple enough that an enthusiast can make his or her own kit at home, while also being sophisticated enough to send voice, text and even images to other operators around the world, said Barnstable County radio operator Frank O’Laughlin.

Barnstable County Radio Operator Frank O'Laughlin demonstrates his shortwave radio kit at the county's Multi-Agency Coordination Center in Barnstable Village.
Credit Kathryn Eident

“The beautiful thing about our equipment is that we can drag something that’s only worth a few hundred dollars out of the trunk of the car, set up in a tent, or hang it from a flag pole… and we’re back on the air in 15-20 minutes,” O’Laughlin said.

The drawback is that these systems aren’t able to send large amounts of data the same way commercial cell phone and internet providers can.

In storms, O’Laughlin oversees a network of volunteers who send reports to the MACC and the National Weather Service. Radio operators even staff local shelters and can relay messages for officials if another system goes down.

Barnstable County Emergency Preparedness Director Sean O’Brien says these volunteers, and their kits, are critical to county operations.

“We couldn’t do what we do without our volunteers,” he said. “As long as we have generators, ham radio is going to run.”

Should a hurricane barrel up the East Coast, members of the MACC will be holding daily phone conferences, testing their backup systems, and gathering supplies, so they’re ready long before the grocery stores run out of milk and bread.