The reports thus far from public-safety personnel affected by Hurricane Katrina are providing us with some early lessons. Although there will be more detailed reports forthcoming, as emergency services workers have time to reflect on their observations and experiences, we already have some facts that should force public-safety agencies to re-think their emergency communications plans and preparedness for catastrophic events.

These lessons can easily apply to any catastrophic event, whether it is a natural disaster — such as a hurricane, tornado, flood, forest fire or earthquake — or a terrorist attack such as the events of 9/11.

Of course we need to realize that in the case of Hurricane Katrina, the affected area (parts of four states) was equal to the size of Great Britain, about 90,000 square miles.

Although public-safety communications are delivered in several ways, most agencies rely upon their traditional government-owned or -leased land mobile radio systems. Such systems are usually built to withstand unusual stresses. Public safety also relies upon commercial cellular-type services for supplemental or backup communications services, but unfortunately, those services usually are not reliable in major catastrophic events, as was the case with Hurricane Katrina.

Three issues stand out in the reports so far:

  • Tower/infrastructure failures: Most public-safety radio systems are designed to account for the possibility of a single tower-site failure, resulting from the loss of the actual tower, the failure of base station(s) or repeaters and/or loss of commercial power. When many or all tower sites are damaged or destroyed as the result of a catastrophic event, then contingency plans must be in place to quickly install temporary alternative communications facilities. Such plans should include prior arrangements for bringing in temporary self-contained communications systems, including power-generating equipment that will enable delivery of basic communications services. This is necessary to support the delivery of urgent public-safety services during the first hours and days after the catastrophic event.

  • Power failures: Most public-safety agencies plan for power failures, but generally those plans are based on 12 to 24 hours of outage rather than several days or weeks. Generators usually are powered by gasoline, diesel, natural gas or propane. Soon after Hurricane Katrina struck, it was realized that fuel supplies were not readily available, and in many cases the natural gas supply was disrupted. Those sites that had large gasoline, diesel or propane fuel tanks capable of running generators for at least a week turned out to be the only sites still able to operate.

  • Battery/charger failures: The traditional hand-held radio units that normally operate on rechargeable batteries were a big problem. In many cases the charging units were either destroyed or there was no generating power to recharge them. With no way to charge the batteries, the radio units became useless. It was reported that in New Orleans, the police confiscated Family Radio Service radios from local stores along with supplies of AA batteries to power them and that became one of the only radio communications that worked in the early days after the storm.

The basic lessons thus far tell us to be prepared for more than the short-time outages for which we have traditionally planned.

Harlin McEwen has been in the field of law enforcement for more than 47 years. He has served for more than 26 years as Chairman of the IACP Communications & Technology Committee and also serves as communications adviser to the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association, the National Sheriffs' Association, the Major County Sheriffs' Association, and as an advisor to the FBI, the National Institute of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security and various other local, state, and federal agencies. He is a member of the Department of Homeland Security SAFECOM Executive Committee and currently serves as vice chair of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council.