updated 5/28/2007 2:10:05 PM ET 2007-05-28T18:10:05

The response by emergency workers following a tornado that ripped through Greensburg recently shared at least one thing with the reaction to a massive ice storm in January that downed power lines for days in the same region.

Both exposed the vulnerabilities of the cellular phone system — and particularly the dependence by emergency responders on cell phones during a natural disaster, officials said. In the critical first days following both disasters, communications were hampered by a lack of landline phones, coupled with spotty or nonexistent cellular service.

"We have to figure out a better safety system," Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said just after the tornado hit.

Sebelius has said she wants a backup cellular system that could be fired up quickly after a disaster.

"A cell phone is critical in being able to communicate in a disaster," said Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for the Kansas Emergency Management Agency. "Unfortunately, because it tends to be the one most relied on resource, it means overloaded lines."

Emergency responders in Greensburg had some satellite phones in the National Guard command vehicle and the Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer, but most people in the field relied on cell phones.

Watson said she carried devices from three different providers — Cingular, T-Mobile and Alltel — to Greensburg and there were periods when all of them were useless. Customers reported similar problems with other major providers.

The May tornado and the January ice storm both cause electrical disruptions on grids that feed wireless systems.

"Wireless technology works off power; whenever power is impacted the ability to keep up is impacted," said Stephanie Walsh, spokeswoman for Sprint.

Cellular sites typically have backup generators that kick in during brief power outages, but those work for only a few hours. Wireless providers say governments need to have more power generators ready for future disasters.

Sprint Nextel invested $27 million last year to expand its emergency response team, created in 2002, to assist emergency workers with relief efforts, Walsh said.

"There are a lot of very well thought out, thorough backup plans in place ... to ensure our customers do have service," Walsh said. "After an event like this, it depends on the severity of events and what happened."

Cingular was among the first cellular providers to restore its service. It was up the day after the tornado, said Cingular spokeswoman Tara Traycoff.

In the event of a disaster, Traycoff suggested using text messages because it pulls less on the cellular network.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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