Thursday, August 10, 2017

Strained cell phone service and traffic are key concerns as emergency officials prepare for solar eclipse

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Posted by Dustin Waters on Thu, Aug 10, 2017 at 2:07 PM

click to enlarge The solar eclipse will pass through Charleston between 2:40 and 2:50 p.m. on August 21 - NASA
  • NASA
  • The solar eclipse will pass through Charleston between 2:40 and 2:50 p.m. on August 21
In preparation for the first total solar eclipse to hit the Unites States since the proliferation of cell phones, communication systems and traffic are expected to suffer the greatest impact as the Charleston area is inundated with visitors.

With the complete solar eclipse scheduled to occur Mon. Aug. 21, local emergency management agencies have announced a coordinated effort to address complications that may arise during the once-in-lifetime event.

“It’s very interesting to note that this is the first total solar eclipse throughout the U.S.A in the cellular era, so some of the impacts may not be known ahead of time,” says Bill Tunick, director of radio and telecom for Charleston County. “The duration of the event — the beginning of the first partial eclipse and the end of the partial eclipse with the full eclipse in the middle — will be about three hours. There’s going to be a lot of people on social media, streaming video throughout the entire county. You can expect congestion on the cell phone networks and very slow responses.”

Tunick clarified that the eclipse itself has no effect on cell phone service. After speaking with Verizon and AT&T, Tunick says both service providers are expected to have major congestion on their networks and say that text messages will likely be the surest means of communication during the eclipse.

Tunick says that 911 calls will take priority across the network, and additional staff will be on hand at the county’s Consolidated 911 Center to handle the expected increase in emergency calls. The emergency call center can also receive texts to 911 in the case of an emergency.

“On the actual date of the eclipse, we are going to open up the Charleston County Emergency Operations Center. This is not an activation of the operations center in the traditional sense,” says Jason Patno, director of the Charleston County Emergency Management Department at Charleston County. “This more or less the space where public safety officials will gather so they can share information related to events that are associated with the eclipse.”

According to Maj. Eric Watson, the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office will activate their emergency response plan, which will serve to deploy officers across the county. Of specific concern to the Sheriff’s Office will be rural areas such as McClellanville, Awendaw, Johns Island, and Hollywood. These areas will experience increased patrols by law enforcement officers.

Watson expects traffic to be at its worst immediately following the eclipse and asks that drivers do not stop or impede the flow of traffic to view the eclipse. Traffic in and out of Charleston is expected to be heavier than normal, according to the city’s emergency management director, Mark Wilbert, who said an additional challenge will be parking, especially in the downtown area.

The pedestrian walkway of the Ravenel Bridge will be closed during the eclipse to safeguard against putting an unknown number of people on the bridge, which officials say would pose a specific challenge as emergency resources are scattered across Charleston County. All safety lights across the city that programmed to turn on during times of darkness are expected to activate at the time of the eclipse.

Although facing a rare event such as a total solar eclipse, emergency officials feel prepared for the challenges that such a situation may present.

“This is something that we as a group have trained for for years during natural disasters, hurricane preparations,” says Maj. Watson. “Although it’s a unique event, to us it’s something we have planned for.”

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