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Radio Systems Manager of Polk County, Fla., Helps Keep Regional Communications Going

Communications begin again when Ben Holycross and his team arrive on scene.

by Jim McKay / August 16, 2016
Ben Holycross, radio systems manager, Polk County, Fla. Steve Widoff

Ben Holycross has been the radio systems manager for Polk County, Fla., for 18 years. In all, he has more than 40 years of service in public safety, law enforcement and emergency management, but has spent the last 25 developing optimum communications for first responders. He was instrumental in the design and construction of Polk County’s Motorola 800 MHz SmartZone radio system and maintains management of it. 

Tell me about all your interoperability “weaponry.”

We bought the original 800 system in December 1997, and acquired an Aluma tower trailer, five-channel trunking system and some conventional repeaters in 1999. As part of our rebanding we were left with some Quantar repeaters and had them upgraded. We now have a six-channel P25 system, a five-channel analog with three, 800 conventional repeaters, three UHF conventional repeaters and three VHF conventional repeaters in the Aluma tower.

When we pull into a disaster area, we put our P25 system on the air, and all of the Central Florida Task Force radios — fire, EMS and law enforcement from Polk, Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties — have the system programmed into their mobiles and portables so they are immediately operational as soon as we get our tower on the air.

So you’re set for just about any disaster that comes your way?

I don’t know that anybody is ever all set. I will make the claim that we are ahead of anybody else that I know of as far as being able to go into a major disaster area and bring full-spectrum communications on the air, and that’s everything from high-frequency radio to land mobile systems to satellite communication. We’re about as good or better than anybody else I’ve seen. There are folks that have some bigger or better items, but as far as a full capability to deploy it and operate it in the field and support the logistics, including the people requirements, I think we’re at the top end of the pyramid.

What led to all that capability?

After responding to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and finding communication nonexistent, I said, “We’re never going to do this again.” I’m never going to be in a position where my first responders are going into a disaster without some means of communications.

Then in [early August] 2004 we got hit with Hurricane Charley. Then we got hit by Frances [mid-August 2004] and then did our first Polk County deployment up to Pensacola Beach when they got hit by Hurricane Ivan in early September.

So we had two hurricane impacts here, and my folks had worked through those, then got up to Pensacola Beach and operated there for 10 days. While we were there I got an email from one of my counterparts saying, “You’re about to be the only radio manager to have his system hit by the eye wall of three hurricanes in one season.” I said, “No way, Ivan didn’t hit us. We’re up in Pensacola.” He said, “Have you looked at the weather forecast?” Then came Hurricane Jeanne. We took three eye wall hits in six weeks. It was incredible — a learning experience from being both the victims and responders simultaneously.

Polk County can bring full-spectrum communications on the air from any location. Photo by Steve Widoff

What changed after that?

Our mobile radio trailer at the time was in its infancy. It wasn’t too far from having been just an open box trailer. We had lights, air conditioning and power, and four bunks in there, but it was very rudimentary. We didn’t have CAD installed when we deployed up to Pensacola the first time.

But it was superior to having to sleep out in the heat on the dirt. That was the lesson from that deployment — we needed significant improvements inside the trailer and a data network to connect all the radio programming computers, as well as a head in the shower and a complete water system, so that when we go into the field we actually can take care of our people. That’s a very important thing and came from lessons learned from having deployed at Hurricane Andrew. We had folks deployed and had absolutely no way to support people in the field as far as housing and it was very trying.

In 2005 we got hit with Hurricane Dennis in Pensacola Beach, and we wound up back up there for about another 10 days. We came back from that again with a laundry list of improvements that we needed to make. So we had three in-county hurricane hits, two in-county responses, and after each one of those events we improved our capabilities. Then Katrina hit.

We wound up deployed over to Hancock County, Miss., which was actually ground zero, where Katrina came ashore. We operated there for 30 days. When we got there the day after the storm came through, we had the only communications in that county.

It was a very interesting experience. While we were there we got hit from some of the outer bands of Hurricane Rita and had to pull the tower partway down and secure everything. We survived that and after 30 days had enough system in place until they brought in another system. After that we deployed to Broward County, for Hurricane Wilma.

For two years we were sort of like disaster gypsies, going from one to another.

Can you discuss the other types of disasters you’ve responded to, including Katrina?

We’ve done quite a few of the wildland fires supporting ground operations and supported two law enforcement situations with law enforcement officers killed that involved one- or two-day-long manhunts. It was exceptionally chaotic. In one case, they had a two- or three-square-mile area where the perpetrator was. They had a perimeter established, and all the law enforcement [officers] were on foot maintaining the perimeter all night long. When their portable radio batteries die they’re in a fix because their vehicles may have been parked six or eight blocks away and they can’t leave the line. We had to make rounds out there to get them batteries.

One of the dilemmas early on during Katrina was fresh drinking water. We had on our radio shop tower a 200-gallon water tank. The water was gone by day two; we needed showers bad by day seven. FEMA had been sending water into the area, but it was one-liter cases of drinking water. We had eight people on staff with four responding to the event. We found ourselves uncapping the bottles of drinking water and pouring them all into the holding tank on the tower so we could take showers. I said we’ll never do this again, and we bought a military water purification system from Aspen Water. You can take any fresh-water source — lake, stream, ditch — and it will crank out 5,500 gallons a day.

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