Hurricane Katrina was a singular event last year, devastating the lives of tens of thousands of people. Because of its size, many are now calling it a catastrophe, putting it in the same category as the Asian Tsunami. In New Orleans, Katrina was, of course, two disasters at once: a hurricane followed in many areas by destructive flooding. Although a storm on par with Katrina may not be the disaster that is most likely to befall the typical American region, Katrina taught the public-safety community a number of things that should be strongly considered everywhere.

M/A-COM was in New Orleans to support public-safety communications systems soon after the post-hurricane flooding began. In the wake of such a crisis, the many challenges faced by public-safety officials at all levels come to light, and in order to prepare for future catastrophes, those officials will need to be able to overcome those challenges. Here are some of the obstacles that need to be overcome and their implications for public-safety agencies and governments:

  • Command and control: Public-safety practitioners are used to the structured and hierarchal incident command approach to disasters. Unfortunately, elected officials often are not trained in this system. Yet under our democratic form of government, they ultimately are in control during a crisis situation. A culture clash can sometimes occur between the public-safety chiefs, who are accustomed to making decisions rapidly during the chaos of emergency incidents, and elected officials, who are used to compromise and consensus. This must be addressed by discussions between officials and chiefs before an incident.

    Another aspect of command and control involves the ability of the public-safety communications system to have all its links in place, so that citizens can dial 911 or 311 for information, get access to call takers and, ultimately, have their emergency calls dispatched. If any part of the system breaks down, it will be difficult to control the public-safety response. During the Katrina crisis, the landline and cellular phone systems were mostly down, making it difficult for citizens to access the system.

  • Access: It is imperative that civilian dispatchers, support personnel, as well as vendors that provide service, be provided access during emergencies. Credentials that will be honored by public-safety officers must be made available to such personnel. In New Orleans, officers from outside of the area, most of whom were unfamiliar with the credentials, were brought in for added security, delaying the response of many support personnel.

    Access may be denied to key sites, such as public-safety answering points (PSAPs), because of flooding, downed trees and power lines, earthquake faults, etc. PSAPs and other key areas should be able to operate without outside support (food, water, power) for one to three days. Personnel on duty may have to spend extended periods in place. Therefore, sleeping quarters, and perhaps laundry facilities, must be considered.

    Access to communications sites will be impeded if the power is off. In New Orleans, technicians for the city system had to climb 35 stories, in the dark, carrying all of their supplies and tools because building elevators were not working.

  • Logistics: In a catastrophe, normal services may be reduced or stopped. Water, power, telephones, fire alarm boxes, fuel, gas, garbage collection, sewer and public transportation may all be non-existent. Agencies and governments must plan for such conditions.

  • Power: Most agencies have emergency generators, but they are usually rated for standby use and not for continuous-duty prime power for weeks and months. This was the experience in the aftermath of the hurricane. Generators must be tested at least monthly, and a log must be kept of all testing and repairs. The generators should be run under load, and diesel engines should not be run at less than 80% of their rated load or they will carbon up, creating a maintenance problem. Generator fuel tanks should be accessible for refueling and of sufficient size to run for several days before refueling is needed. Fuel needs to be kept fresh, which can be done during the periodic testing.

    Public-safety portable radios must have their batteries recharged every eight to 12 hours. If the power is off, there needs to be provisions for recharging spare batteries in a local area that is not dependent on primary power.

  • Site hardening: If sites have been properly designed for the region, they will be able to withstand the situations for that region. However, over time, maintenance must be continually performed to ensure that the site shelters remain weather-tight.

  • Alarms: Most communications systems include system monitoring at a central location. Site intrusion and fire, site primary power, generator and standby battery status, and electronic monitoring are all part of most systems. However, during times of major catastrophe, personnel may be relocated or be out of the area where the system alarms are monitored. It is important that such alarms be monitored wherever personnel may be located, and, in some cases, a cell phone or pager can be called if certain critical alarms are received. However, during Katrina most landline, cellular and paging systems were not working.

  • Backhaul: Backhaul refers to the communications links between radio sites, the central control equipment and the dispatch centers. Should these links fail in a wide area trunking system, the system will go into failsoft site-trunking mode. This means that officers who are used to being able to roam throughout the area and always hear their talk group — and therefore always able to reach the dispatcher — may find that they can only access some of their talk group or the dispatcher some of the time. Operationally, officers, EMTs and firefighters must be trained if wide area communications are impaired in this way.

  • Other communications: As previously described, when cell phones and landline telephones are down, citizens will have difficulty in accessing emergency services. The track record for cellular systems is quite clear: They failed during the 2003 New York blackout, the 2004 Florida hurricanes and during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Citizens need to know how to access public safety in such conditions. For example, they should walk to the nearest fire station or police precinct.

    Agencies also must be able to contact the outside world in such instances. Satellite phones are one way, but they can be expensive, depending on the service providers' plan. Amateur radio is another resource that is available in most areas and doesn't depend on the normal communications infrastructure. Agencies should consider contacting their local ham club.

  • Security: Communications sites must be secured with fencing and locks and security lighting, and in some cases, law enforcement must include such sites in their patrols to ensure that vandalism or theft does not occur. Armed escorts need to be provided to civilian personnel, including maintenance technicians and dispatchers who are moving about the area. Armed gangs may take advantage of a civil emergency and fire upon rescue workers and maintenance technicians.

  • Interoperability: Much has been written about this, but even when an agency possesses the technical equipment, it must continually practice with its neighboring agencies, both in tabletop and real-life exercises, to make its interoperability plans workable. They should not depend on civilian communications.

  • Personnel considerations: Public-safety personnel, including officers, dispatchers and civilian technicians, must be rotated in and out when they are working a catastrophe almost 24 hours a day. The constant barrage of negative news and a triage atmosphere can be very stressful and may not always be conducive to good decision-making. Some officers may adopt the “hero” role and work to exhaustion. A rotation plan of two to four days on and two days off can allow them time to take care of their own families and to de-stress. Where possible, use trained outsiders to help relieve the work load and provide a source of objective advice.

  • Managing citizens' expectations: Citizens have come to expect near instant response to their 911 calls. Such response is impossible when agencies are overwhelmed and must triage incoming calls. Many areas have created a citizen's handbook, which suggests that citizens be prepared to look after themselves during a catastrophe for several days. The Los Angeles Fire Department has an Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness Handbook (www.lafd.org), which does just that, as do many other states, cities and counties. Governments and agencies should consider creating such a handbook, updating it periodically, and reminding citizens at public forums of its existence.


John Facella is the director for public-safety markets at M/A-COM Wireless Systems. He has 23 years' experience in public-safety radio and 20 years of first responder experience as a firefighter/EMT. He is a member of APCO and the International Association of Chiefs of Police Communications and Technology Committee.

COPING WITH DISASTERS 101

PRE-DISASTER:

Plan ahead for service outages

Perform regular maintenance to harden sites

Test generator performance monthly

Train personnel for communications outages

Develop procedures for informing citizenry

POST-DISASTER:

Avoid culture clashes that could delay or impede response

Test generator fuel for contamination

Provide proper credentials and essential services for technicians

Monitor system alarms, remotely if necessary

Rotate personnel to avoid exhaustion

Provide armed escorts for technicians

Manage citizens' expectations