An independent panel convened by the FCC met for the second time last month in Jackson, Miss., to discuss the lessons that have been learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated private and public communications networks last August.

One notion floated by two of the participants is that the federal government should step up its support of public-safety communications systems by establishing a certification program for technicians, developing best practices for restoring inoperable systems and funding crucial temporary systems that proved effective in the aftermath of Katrina.

Currently, public-safety communications in the city of New Orleans “are stable,” said Nick Tusa, owner of New Orleans-based Tusa Consulting Services and consulting engineer for the city's public-safety radio system, in an interview with MRT a few days after testifying before the independent panel. The radio system was back in operation on Sept. 2, while a system in neighboring Jefferson Parish came back online at about the same time, despite losing several tower sites that were damaged by tornadoes spawned by the hurricane, according to Tusa.

Although getting these systems back in operation just five days after arguably the worst natural disaster in U.S. history might seem impressive at first glance, Tusa said the recovery should have gone faster.

“The city uses contract technicians [to maintain the system], and they were under the same mandatory evacuation order everyone else was under,” Tusa said. “They had documentation that was supposed to get them back into the city, but that didn't work. Because of that, the radio system was off the air for several days, when it should have been off the air for hours.”

The lack of police radio communications greatly contributed to the lawlessness and chaos that gripped the city for several days, Tusa said. “That caused tremendous grief down here,” he said.

According to Tusa, the inability of the radio technicians to re-enter New Orleans is a shining example of the lack of pre-Katrina planning that plagued the recovery effort. Another concerned fuel supplies. When Katrina made landfall, it had diminished to a Category 3 hurricane. Although still a powerful storm, the winds didn't topple the police department's radio system antenna atop the Energy Center. Nor did it topple other communications antennas throughout the city. Unfortunately, they stopped transmitting anyway because generators that provided backup power to base stations failed when they ran out of fuel.

Making the situation worse was the inability of refueling trucks to reach the depleted generators because of the flooding that afflicted the city. Tusa can't understand why, given New Orleans' topography, such a scenario wasn't anticipated. “We all knew [the flooding] could happen, so it shouldn't have been a big surprise,” he said.

Eventually, diesel fuel was airlifted to the top of the Energy Center, but had pre-disaster planning been better, it could have arrived much sooner, Tusa said. “That should have been the first priority, but it wasn't on anyone's radar screen at all,” he said, adding that a plan should have been in place to deliver large stores of fuel by helicopter and boat.

While rethinking fuel-delivery strategies would be a step in the right direction, Tusa further suggested that public-safety agencies go one step further and abandon the use of diesel fuel altogether in favor of natural gas or liquid propane gas (LPG). Diesel fuel contaminates with age, and natural gas and liquid propane gas burns more efficiently, according to Tusa, who told of one county that ran a generator on LPG for a week and consumed only about 150 gallons of fuel from a 500-gallon tank.

In addition, Tusa suggested that the FCC mandate a nationwide certification program for radio personnel employed by public-safety agencies — either as staff or on a contract basis — that would focus on establishing best practices for reacting to disasters or terrorist attacks that wipe out critical communications infrastructure.

Although it might be argued that more and better planning always is better and that greater federal support of public-safety communications networks would be a good thing, Harlin McEwen, chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police communications and technology committee, cautioned in an interview after his testimony before the independent panel that no amount of planning is enough when dealing with an event of the magnitude of Katrina.

“We're used to dealing with disasters, which are localized. Even 9/11 was a localized event,” he said. “Yes, it affected New York City, [Washington, D.C.] and Pennsylvania. But in New York, for example, the attacks knocked out a neighborhood, but not the entire city.”

By that measure, Katrina was far different, as it inflicted devastation over three states and wiped out local and state government infrastructure, including vital communications systems wherever it went. “Katrina was a catastrophe, and you can't plan for a catastrophe,” McEwen said.

But he quickly added that you could plan better for how you're going to respond to a catastrophe. In the future, McEwen would like to see federal support for the mobile communications command centers, dubbed SATCOLT [satellite-based cellular on light truck], which Sprint Nextel's Emergency Response Team [ERT] deployed to the Gulf Coast in Katrina's aftermath.

Currently, Sprint Nextel has five SATCOLTs housing 27-foot-long self-propelled vehicles that contain a 60-foot pneumatic mast, a 15 kW generator, 200 gallons of generator fuel that can keep everything running for up to 12 days and equipment that links to Ku-band satellites to connect to Sprint Nextel switches, which in turn deliver connectivity to the carrier's iDEN (push-to-talk), CDMA and packet data networks. In addition, it carries Raytheon JPS's ACU-1000 interconnection devices on board to help establish interoperable communications between first responders at the scene and provides a coverage area ranging from 1 to 10 miles, depending on topography.

“The SATCOLT offers quite a lot of flexibility,” said ERT Director Matt Foosaner.

Another advantage, according to Foosaner, is that the SATCOLTs are self-supporting and as such do not require tower crews or electricians to deploy. A two-person team can set it up in about a half hour, and be on the air in about two hours, Foosaner said. The SATCOLTs currently are scattered across the U.S. but can be staged near a hurricane's expected landfall and — because they are self-propelled — quickly deployed to the affected area. “Hurricane predictions usually are accurate most of the time,” Foosaner said. In the case of Katrina, Sprint Nextel had a SATCOLT in place in Baton Rouge four hours after the storm passed.

According to McEwen, other wireless carriers also deploy similar units, known as COWS [cellular on wheels], but they are focused on restoring commercial communications. “I don't think the other carriers see themselves as being in the public-safety business, but rather in the cellular business,” McEwen said.

That's not true of Sprint Nextel, which aggressively markets its iDEN service to public-safety as an adjunct to traditional land mobile radio systems. Given the carrier's connection to public safety, making the SATCOLTs available is an obligation, Foosaner said. “If you're going to step into [the public-safety] game, you have to step in fully,” he said.

That's not to say Sprint Nextel would turn away the government's help underwriting the initiative. The SATCOLTs cost about $750,000 to build — Sprint Nextel also covers the operating costs — and five more are being built.

“Harlin's concept is something we'd support,” Foosaner said.