It's nearly been one year after the 2020 Christmas Day bombing rocked Nashville, damaging and destroying historic buildings and knocking out communications to millions over the course of nearly a week.
First responder agencies in Williamson County are looking back at the lessons learned during that time and how their planning, teamwork and ingenuity helped them navigate a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime event.
Williamson County has two 911 centers, one operated by the county and one by the City of Brentwood. Both of which were impacted by the Nashville bombing, along with many emergency communication systems and agencies in Middle Tennessee (66 districts in total).
The bomb blast killed the bomber, Anthony Warner, and his dogs, and injured several people. It also severely damaged the AT&T building on Second Avenue, which serves a regional communications hub. The blast critically damaged a set of batteries at the facility meant to keep operations running in the event of a power failure.
This resulted in downed phone and internet lines across Tennessee and caused other parts of the Southeast to shut down beginning around noon on Christmas Day, including lines used by the Williamson County Emergency Management Agency and the county’s 911 center in Franklin (shut down until Dec. 29).
According to the Tennessee Lookout, a May meeting with the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board and AT&T has led to discussions and plans for future disasters, using the lessons learned from the bombing.
Those lessons are not limited to those in Nashville as Williamson County agencies assess what went right and how they can better serve the public in a time of crisis.
Like many Middle Tennesseans, Williamson County Emergency Communications Director Kristy Borden first learned of the bombing, then simply called an explosion, through news reports, and continued to celebrate Christmas with her family.
“I contacted dispatch and everything was working normal that morning so I continued with my family opening presents and doing that sort of thing,” Borden said.
“Around noon we started losing services and I started getting phone calls, and within just a few minutes, we were inside the EOC [Emergency Operations Center]," Borden said. “All of our administration here, we came together and started working through what solutions we could find.”
Borden said that, while the impact to the county’s emergency communications infrastructure was significant, it was advanced planning and redundancies in county and other local agencies’ systems and administrators that kept local first responders and emergency management officials working for citizens, with the county reporting no significant disruption to their actual emergency responses in late December 2020.
“Within police and fire, the most important part really is the communications center, because if it doesn't get done right there, that information can’t be passed along to the first responders,” said the City of Brentwood’s Director Information Technology John Allman, who initially started with the city as a firefighter in 1986.
“The first thing we did was transfer our 911 lines to cell phones that each dispatcher had at their desks,” Allman continued. “We actually have a cache of 50 Verizon phones that we keep on hand just for situations like this, so while we got them transferred to the cell phones, that was a stop-gap fix.”
Allman began contacting his peers across the county and region, handing out around 20 Verizon cell phones to Franklin Fire Department who didn’t have voice communication, as well as city leaders vital to keeping the city and the public safety infrastructure intact.
Allman and his team also worked to transfer the city’s 911 lines to their administrative lines which did not use AT&T services, and began troubleshooting and improvising as each new challenge presented itself.
“That’s a big deal because that allowed the dispatchers to use their headsets and answer calls coming into the 911 center even though they were on an admin line," he explained. "It allowed them to get back into a more normal mode.”
Allman also reached out to his colleagues in Nashville to see if and how he could help them, but it was within the county that those personal and professional relationships helped most. The help ensured that first responder agencies were as prepared as they could be for any disaster and had the ability to work through the realities of the real-world challenge.
“I’m a firm believer in that while you take care of yourself, you also take care of your neighbors, and the City of Brentwood, Franklin and the county just have an unbelievable operating relationship,” Allman said.
“Relationships are so important to be established before anything happens in an emergency,” he continued. “It’s a vital key in preparing for disasters. That’s something that we really emphasize in this area.”
Allman and city officials tried several plans to help correct issues that occurred following the bombing, but both the city and the county was having trouble getting in touch with AT&T.
The telecommunications company was kept from even assessing its Nashville building for hours after the blast, as the structural integrity of the building was in question, compounded with the zone's status as an active crime scene.
“My philosophy and belief is that you plan ahead -- you have a plan A and you have a plan B and then you have a plan C,” Allman said. “So we ended up down at plan C, but Brentwood was able to function fine.”
Allman said that much of this coordination came about several years ago when the county, Brentwood and Franklin began working together to combine their efforts into an upgraded radio system that went live in 2019.
This upgrade allowed for about 98% coverage for body-worn radios and 100% of coverage for vehicles, with the encryption offering secured communications, as well as the founding of the Williamson County Communications Network Authority in relation to the effort.
“Going through this process, all of these leaders had to get together monthly and just work through the ins and outs of how this thing would work, and through policies, so that gets back to relationship-building,” Allman said. “Everybody came to the table with an open heart to try and achieve one major accomplishment, and that was to have solid communications between everybody in the county, which we’ve walked away with an incredible system.”
Christmas Day is typically a slower day for 911 calls, but public confusion led to some influx of calls. That day, some aspects of the phone systems were working while other aspects weren't, including the inability for 911 calls to have now standard information such as location of calls or caller ID, and each municipality was experiencing both similar and some unique issues compared to their local neighbors.
“We were one of the lucky ones because of our emergency management planning here we were able to stay up,” Borden said. “We had other avenues that we could continue to receive phone calls through it. Even though 911 wasn’t working, we still had systems that were supporting us so that when people were calling 911 we could call them back, we could get their location from that technology and we also had different ways of receiving calls.”
Communication was also hampered with some first responders who were outside of the county and impacted by the loss in phone services. They were also far enough outside of the county to not be able to use their radios to communicate directly with their colleagues.
In addition to emergency communications working to keep systems up and running, officials were working to make sure that the public knew that work was being done behind the scenes.
“One of the biggest things that has happened is that the public information officers in the county are working together to get the same message out all of the time,” Allman said. “And that’s a really big piece of what happened. In the past it would be, Brentwood would send one message, Franklin would send another message and then the county, now it’s really a coordinated effort to say the same thing.”
“We were really focused on identifying lines of communication with the public,” Williamson County Emergency Management Agency External Affairs Officer Hannah Bleam said.
Bleam said those options included digital avenues such as the Everbridge app, but also included relying on their radios, pushing out information to news outlets and looking into utilizing led road signs.
It came down to any way to connect and communicate with the community, and encouraging community members to communicate vital information to their friends and neighbors in a more grassroots way.
“As much as you practice a scenario, it is never the same as living through a real emergency,” Brentwood Community Relations Manager Deanna Lambert said. “You can never plan for something like what happened on Dec. 25, 2020. You can never plan exactly what’s going to happen.”
City and county officials also said that, while they work to improve and operate their emergency operations and responses, personal preparedness is vital. They encourage citizens to think and plan ahead for the unforeseeable, having things such as at least two forms of communication and having food, water and medicine on hand.
Allman said that, just as the county and local partners were looking ahead before the bombing, they are continuing to explore ways to improve their infrastructure and ability to respond to emergencies.
The county and the City of Brentwood is working with Rutherford County to create a private network that would allow each agency or jurisdiction to automatically share administrative lines if someone experiences a problem. The city is also working to upgrade emergency vehicles who experienced data interruptions.
“We have such a great team and I really can’t commend them enough,” Borden said, adding that the calm of the emergency staff showed their professionalism in action that Christmas Day.
“I realized that even more that day, just walking into the EOC and looking around, and everyone is brainstorming and moving forward and continuing to look at what-ifs," she said. "That’s what they do, and that’s what we all do together, and being supported in that. It was a 911 failure, it was a community disaster, but the community came together and helped each other.”
Borden said that the experience and lessons have also strengthened Williamson County’s relationship and communication with Davidson County agencies, who have already had long-standing working relationships with each other, especially by the use of their radio systems.
“This added to that conversation with them that we are looking outward to the future and saying, how can we not only share radio technology and redundancy, but also, can we use fiber, can we use other ways, microwave shots, can we use other things between us to help our redundancies with the phones,” Borden said, adding that some upgrades have already happened that have helped to further connect the two counties.
“Since the bombing, it’s just encouraged us to move forward with that out-of-box thinking, and how can we move forward and how can we support each other in these times,” she continued. “We’re asking all the right questions, and we’re trying to find all of the solutions that we can. So it’s moving us forward, but we were already walking that way anyway.”