The first two parts of this series discussed some of the basic systems and equipment necessary to provide communications in a disaster environment. In this part we'll look at the operating environment and some areas in which you need to develop a knowledge base.

Depending on the type, severity, location and advance warning, the first 24 to 72 hours following a disaster tend to be very chaotic. Unfortunately, this is also the most critical period for immediate rescue and life-saving activities by first responders. The effectiveness of the first responders in this initial phase is in very large part determined by their ability to communicate. (The solution to this critical need will be covered in detail in the next installment, which will examine Joint Communications Support Unit (JCSU) operation.)

Generally speaking, disaster-response operations are governed by the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and are conducted using the Incident Command System (ICS). Administration of both NIMS and ICS fall under the purview of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The chain of disaster management runs from FEMA at the national level (sometimes through regional offices) to the individual state's emergency management organization, and then from the state level (in most states) to the county's emergency management director. Florida, like many states, mandates the appointment of an emergency management director. The position may be full- or part-time, depending on the county. The local entities, i.e., cities, villages, and townships, coordinate with the county.

NIMS deals with the big-picture issues and defines how the nation will respond to disasters, while the ICS provides the organizational structure used in the aftermath of a disaster. It is the method by which responders from many different jurisdictions and disciplines will organize, coordinate, communicate and work together as one team. There is a complete series of ICS training courses available at state and local levels, most of which are free of charge. Some of the ICS courses are self-paced, on-line courses available directly from FEMA. The potential disaster-communications practitioner needs to have a working knowledge of the ICS and understanding of where they fit into the organization and operations. Getting this education is much easier before the disaster than during the event.

The communications function, which historically has been mostly an afterthought, is a component of the ICS. Within the last three years, a considerable effort has been made to remedy this situation. A Communications Unit Leader course (Comm/L) now exists that is being integrated into the ICS curriculum. This course represents a significant milestone in addressing disaster-communications challenges. However, there is a long way to go before this function fulfills its potential. Additional focus and effort have to be given to concept development, education, and training, as well as to generating the funding needed to provide and maintain the necessary equipment.

The disaster-communications practitioner needs to understand the operating environment. In this regard, the old medical adage of “First, do no harm” comes into play. Here's an example: Within a day of Hurricane Charlie, three separate response groups entered Charlotte County, Fla., and turned on repeaters they had brought with them for use by their agency. All three of those repeaters were programmed for the national mutual-aid Tac-4 channel, which already was operating at a site within the county. All three of the responding repeaters were within two miles of each other and of the county site. The technical reader immediately will understand the ramifications of having four repeaters on the same frequency pair within close proximity. For the non-technical reader, suffice it to say that the responding repeaters rendered the mutual-aid channel operated by the county totally unusable by anyone for the next three days — which is how long it took to find and shut them down.

In the context of this discussion, coordination and flexibility are the keys to providing successful disaster communications. If you are among the first-in responders, it is possible, even likely, that you will have to perform numerous critical tasks, regardless of whether you are the designated communications leader. (See text box).

As additional personnel become available, a division of responsibilities must be clearly defined, in particular the duties of the Emergency Services Function, or ESF-2, designation (a function within FEMA's National Communications System) and the Comm-L. Note that the communications unit, under the aegis of the Comm-L, is responsible to the ICS command and the operation at hand. Meanwhile, the ESF-2 operates in an emergency operations center environment, and oversees the provisioning of services to first responders, as well as the larger issues involving the restoration of two-way radio systems, telephone service — including 911 and cellular — and, to a lesser degree, broadcast TV and radio, and cable TV, throughout the affected area.

The systems you choose to put on the air must take into account the local systems. If they are still on the air, or are likely to be back on the air in short order, you do not want to implement a frequency plan that will interfere with their operation or impede their restoration. If no systems are operating and the infrastructure is destroyed to the point that a complete new system will be required, some thought must still be given to avoiding interference with the replacement system.

Following Hurricane Katrina, the state of Mississippi sent someone into Hancock County to assume the ESF-2 function. He was not told that I was there, nor was I told that he had been sent in. A day-and-a-half had passed before we found out about each other. Once that happened, we met and established our areas of responsibility and had no further problems. Prior to that, however, we each tried to coordinate a shipment of radios from Motorola, which caused a delay that exceeded four hours.

As this example illustrates, the importance of coordination among the communications responders cannot be overstated. Good intentions are not a substitute for good sense. Rogue operations are not helpful, not appreciated, and not tolerated. When operating as the ESF-2 or Comm-L, you need to know that the FCC is indeed your friend. The agency has regional mobile direction-finding units that will respond at your request to locate and shut-down stations that are causing interference to your operations. Don't hesitate to call them in early if you suspect a problem, as they may be a day away.

The adage about prior planning preventing poor performance is especially true in this area. If you are going to perform the function of disaster-communications leader, then you must identify every possible scenario that you may be tasked to handle — before the disaster happens. Develop a plan for each of those scenarios, as well as all of the possible contingencies that may arise in each one. For each plan, have a back-up plan for when the initial strategy falls apart. As anyone who has been there can tell you, Murphy is alive and well, and he will spend time in your disaster.

Ben Holycross is the radio-systems manager for Polk County, Fla. He has more than 35 years in public safety, with the last 25 years in communications


  • Identify the agencies and systems that were operating in the area before the disaster.
  • Determine whether those agencies and systems are still functional.
  • If the systems are not functional, determine whether it will be a short-term outage or a long-term restoration project.
  • Find out if a local emergency operations center (EOC) is operating; if so, find out whether someone has been assigned to the role of Emergency Services Function (ESF-2).
  • Determine whether ICS has been implemented in the disaster area; if so, determine whether a Comm/L has been designated.
  • If both an ESF-2 and Comm/L are in place, determine whether they are coordinating with each other.
  • If there is neither, understand that you just inherited the job.
  • Absent a local ESF-2 or Comm-L, communicate that fact to everyone so that the central coordination function is established early.
  • Determine what indigenous frequencies are in use, and whether any responding entities have put systems on the air.
  • All new arrivals need to be informed that they should not activate their systems until they have coordinated with you.
  • You will not have to communicate with the FCC regarding the restoration of local sites and systems, which already are licensed. But the commission should be notified as soon as possible regarding any temporary systems, which will require a special temporary authorization.
  • Ensure that information, particularly location, for each system that is operating in the affected area is provided to the local and state EOC.

For More Information

National Incident Management System (NIMS)

Incident Command System (ICS)

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