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For calls during flood, Eastern Iowa police looked long distance

Johnson County prepped to handle calls from Cedar Rapids, Black Hawk County

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IOWA CITY — Though miles away from the Cedar River, Johnson County’s Joint Emergency Communication Center nearly played a vital role in Cedar Rapids’ flood response plans.

In the world of emergency communications, there are three conditions communications officials prepare for. The first involves a brief redirect of emergency communications. The second entails a partial rerouting of communications for an extended period.

“Condition three is the worst-case scenario,” said Charlie McClintock, communications manager for the Cedar Rapids Joint Communications Center. “That’s where your facility is down, your power is out. You’re off the grid.”

Condition three is what Cedar Rapids was preparing for late last month when the Cedar River was projected to spill out of its banks.

The city’s joint communication center is on the third floor of the Cedar Rapids Police Station, which sits along the river. During the historic 2008 flood, the station was evacuated and emergency communications moved to the Marion Police Department.

“We would have held in place as long as humanly possible,” McClintock said. “Obviously, we want to stay there and do our jobs as long as possible. That’s the best scenario for us. If the building would have been unusable ... then we would have no choice but to relocate.”

The relocation plans entailed sending dispatchers to the Johnson County Joint Emergency Communication Center. Though the plans ultimately proved unnecessary, the unpredictable nature of the flood meant McClintock, JECC Executive Director Tom Jones and RACOM, the equipment vendor, all had to prepare just in the event the worst case became reality.

Jones said McClintock called him early in the flood preparation process. The two agencies had worked together in the past, with Johnson County once having sent its dispatchers to Cedar Rapids to handle calls while upgrading its systems. But while the two systems were designed to communicate with each other, this would be a true test.

“We have the technology,” Jones said. “We have the resources. We didn’t want to see the flood, but we wanted to test the redundancies and make sure they work in this event.”

But soon, there was another wrinkle: In the event its dispatch center went down, Black Hawk County had planned to move its operations to Cedar Rapids. With Cedar Rapids potentially out of the picture — and with Black Hawk County coping with its own flooding — that county had to look farther south.

“When we got the call on 4 p.m. on Friday that Black Hawk was going to come down, that was probably the moment in which we really said, ‘Oh, boy,’ and shock set in,” Jones said.

Now the JECC — which dispatches for the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty police departments — faced the possibility not only of handling its own calls but hosting dispatchers from the second-largest city and fourth-most populous county in Iowa.

Jones said preparing for the extra dispatchers involved increasing the number of dispatch consoles from eight to 15. Three phone groups were created — one each for Johnson County, Black Hawk County and Cedar Rapids.

However, those would cover only landline calls, and Jones said 75 percent of 911 calls come from wireless callers. All wireless calls also went to the JECC, but couldn’t be routed to a specific agency, Jones said.

“Everyone would have had to answer the phone,” he said. “If it was a Waterloo call, they would have hollered, ‘I’ve got a Waterloo call.’”

Ultimately, that didn’t need to happen as Black Hawk County stayed put.

Both Jones and McClintock give credit to the RACOM employees who worked tirelessly to help set up the system. Mike Miller, chief executive of the Marshalltown-based company, said he had several employees in his Hiawatha and Coralville branches working 12- to 18-hour days to make sure their clients were taken care of during the flood. RACOM also delivered meals to dispatchers in Cedar Rapids and Marion during the flood, Miller said.

The flood did require the Linn County Sheriff’s Office to move its dispatchers to the Marion Police Department.

“I was really proud of how our folks were able to step up and give them a plan so they didn’t lose one ounce of communication capabilities during the flood,” Miller said.

Jones pointed out that none of these plans would have been possible if not for improvements made since the 2008 flood. The JECC opened in 2010, joining together the radio systems in the county. In 2014, the Linn and Johnson county systems tied their radio systems together.

While the flood never knocked Cedar Rapids out of its communications center, Jones said he was eager to show what the JECC was capable of doing.

“You wanted to really show everyone if it did happen, we could handle it,” he said.

For all of The Gazette's Flood 2016 coverage, please visit our flood coverage center.

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