MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – In the chaos after a tornado killed nine people in Enterprise, emergency workers had trouble talking to one another because they tried to use their cell phones instead of the state’s $18 million emergency communications upgrade, officials say.

“People were frustrated, but all they had to do was turn on their radios,” state Homeland Security Director Jim Walker told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

Most police, firefighters and other emergency responders in Coffee County use Southern LINC Wireless phones and walkie-talkies for day-to-day communications.

But after the tornado struck on March 1, traffic on that system more than tripled “instantaneously,” said Southern LINC’s manager of radio frequency and construction, Clay Brogdon.

“It overwhelmed our network,” Brogdon said.

Like most people, police and other rescue workers have gotten used to using cell phone technology, said Larry Walker, Coffee County deputy emergency management director.

“Because of our reliance on it, if it goes down you’re in a quandary,” Larry Walker said.

He said emergency workers eventually switched from cell phones to radios “and that system worked fine.”

The problems in Enterprise show how dependent society has become on cell phones, said Rosanna Guadagno, a social psychology professor at the University of Alabama.

“Humans tend to be creatures of habit and our habit these days is the cell phone. It’s disabling when technology we have come to rely on is not available to us,” Guadagno said.

For years, law enforcement agencies in Alabama struggled with different radio systems that often would not allow officers in one city to talk to police in the next town or even to their own fire department.

In an effort to fix that problem, the Alabama Department of Homeland Security used $18 million from a federal grant in 2004 to buy equipment that would bridge the gaps between various radio systems.

Brogdon said the Southern LINC cell phone tower in the area stayed in service throughout the emergency and Enterprise never completely lost service. He said many callers were unable to get through because so many people were trying to use the system.

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