When you are the technical-service provider for communications in a disaster area, you are the provider for all of the first responders who show up at the event. Following Hurricane Katrina, we supported responders from 27 states, in addition to the local agencies for the first 30 days.

Last month we examined the likely environment in which disaster-communications personnel likely will find themselves in the aftermath of a major incident. We also looked at some of the essential services that will need to be deployed, such as land mobile radio, patching systems that enable disparate communications systems to communicate — a necessity for a multi-jurisdictional event — and communications systems, such as satellite and high-frequency radio, that allow first responders to communicate with their home agencies.

This month we examine several more essential services and other important considerations.

Data network: We carry a robust server computer on the mobile-radio-shop trailer with a large volume of storage space. We maintain several Wi-Fi access point radios, as well as several point-to-point links that let us establish a fairly large wireless network to support multiple mobile command vehicles , as well as the overall incident-command organization. This wireless data network enables the sharing of maps, imagery and incident forms among the various response agencies. We also carry a large supply of Cat-5 cable and RJ-45 connectors, along with hubs and switches, to hardwire command vehicles that are in close proximity to each other.

Telephone systems: In addition to radio systems and equipment, some thought must be given to telephone service. We carry two types of telephone equipment on a deployment. The first consists of a basic set of 25 analog telephones, along with an Internal Distribution Frame backboard equipped with Type-66 punch blocks and several payout packs of telephone wire and RJ-11 connectors. This allows us to provide a central point for the telephone company to provide service that can then be distributed to individual phone sets.

We also carry an NEC digital key system and 25 digital telephones. This lets us provide a dial tone and three-digit dialing capability to an ad-hoc emergency operations center; it also lets us connect multiple command vehicles. Our VoIP telephone circuits from the satellite units can be used as trunk circuits for the key system that let users dial 9 to get a dial tone from the public switched telephone network (PSTN).

Technical services: In addition to the basics, several other continuing needs exist for which the technical service provider must be prepared. These include services such as:

  • Programming radios for responders just coming into the area.

  • Providing loaner radios to local agencies whose equipment was destroyed, and to first responders whose equipment precludes them from being patched.

  • Charging and swapping out portable radio batteries. As yours will be one of the few locations with electricity, those without functional in-vehicle chargers must turn to you.

  • Repairing radio equipment the deployed first responders bring with them.

  • Providing equipment and training to the various non-governmental organizations — such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army — that need to be able to communicate within the disaster area.

  • Carrying in the mobile radio shop an assortment of printers, including an HP Plotter wide-format printer, and a copy machine. History has shown that the equipment carried in the mobile command vehicles, which are designed for smaller events, is quickly overwhelmed during a large, multi-jurisdictional event, especially one that lasts several weeks or months. In particular, the constant need for updated maps and aerial imagery for briefings that are held once or more daily require a high-volume capability.

  • Assisting the local agencies and coordinating with vendors in the restoration of damaged or destroyed local systems.

  • Having looked at the functions and services that need to be provided, there are some additional areas where a solid knowledge base is needed.

Carrying in the mobile radio shop an assortment of printers, including an HP Plotter wide-format printer, and a copy machine. History has shown that the equipment carried in the mobile command vehicles, which are designed for smaller events, is quickly overwhelmed during a large, multi-jurisdictional event, especially one that lasts several weeks or months. In particular, the constant need for updated maps and aerial imagery for briefings that are held once or more daily require a high-volume capability.

  • Personnel: When developing a disaster-communications capability, you must make deployment a part of the job description. Given family considerations, not everyone is deployable. This is something that needs to be considered and discussed with potential new hires. Staff also needs to understand the environment into which they will be sent, how they will be cared for while there, and what they will be expected to do.

    Care begins with the deployment bag. Each of our staff is provided with a complete deployment kit consisting of the bag, five sets of uniforms and personal field gear that includes a canteen, flashlight, compass, first-aid kit, outerwear and rain gear, and safety equipment. Staff members augment the basic kit with prescription medication or eyeglasses and a personal care/shaving kit to suit their needs.

    These bags remain packed and stored at the radio shop. In a short-notice deployment situation, they have a week's worth of clean clothes and everything they need to function for that time period. Each staff member is encouraged to maintain a list of additional items they plan to take along that they pick up from home or have family bring to them at the last minute.

    We carry a minimum of two weeks of provisions — in the form of MREs (meals ready to eat) and potable water — per person when deploying. We also maintain a last-minute grocery list of items to be picked up and loaded as we prep deployment vehicles. The addition of a camper trailer, which serves as the crew's support vehicle, eliminated many of the concerns regarding the circumstances under which the crew would be living. This was a former FEMA trailer purchased through a program that allows surplus federal equipment to be acquired by state agencies, which kept the cost down. While the mobile radio shop was equipped with bunks and a small bathroom/shower combination, the environment was austere at best.

    When deployed, we maintain a 24/7 link with our emergency dispatch center at home. Family members of deployed personnel are given a phone number that they can call at any time to get a message passed along to the deployed member.

Another issue that requires planning concerns the medical history of each deployed staffer. Should someone on a deployment be injured and rendered unconscious, it can be imperative that someone be able to advise medical personnel of any drug allergies, standard medications or other medical conditions. Given the impact of HIPAA privacy regulations, this is better approached on a voluntary basis or by the deployed member providing the information in a sealed envelope to the communications-unit commander.

Along the same lines, several legal issues need to be addressed. Chief among them is that each employee must have a will and an executed power of attorney for their spouse or others to act in their behalf, if necessary, while they are deployed. Guidance in these areas is far too broad to cover here but generally is available through military-deployment sources, and specifics can be handled by the agency's legal counsel.

To have people who are both ready and willing to go, you need to ensure that they have addressed the myriad personal issues that could render them unavailable or distract their focus when in the field.

Deployment and alert status: Disaster response deployment is not your normal travel situation — forget about commercial carriers and hotel reservations. Typically, deployments will be conducted in a convoy. Convoy operations are a mix of art and science, and represent another knowledge base that must be developed. Once the determination is made that there will be a response, an assembly area for the convoy is designated, and the assembly time and departure time are determined.

The lead times your organization uses will determine how long you will have to get people ready and equipment loaded. This may be a one-time-fits-all for your organization, or it may vary, based on time of year. We have a much shorter leash during hurricane season that is adjusted down the closer a storm gets. Similarly, winter blizzards or spring floods easily can impact deployment lead times.

Establish an alert-status program that is based on threat levels and deployment distance. This provides everyone up and down the chain of command with a clear picture of how short the leash is at any given moment. Establish a schedule that identifies the primary and secondary response teams, and alternate those responsibilities when possible. Publish those schedules well in advance to accommodate family plans, vacation scheduling, and so on, of your team members.

Power systems: Communications systems require electrical power to operate. As power typically is nonexistent in the disaster areas, you will need to provide generators to support the operation. As a rule of thumb, if you need to operate mission-critical systems on a generator, your generator inventory needs to be at least four-deep to carry the basic minimum load. Keep in mind that the number and type of problems that generators seem to incur in a disaster environment are legendary.

We have both a truck-mounted and a trailer-mounted 60 kW diesel generator, each carrying seven days of fuel. In addition, we carry two, 7 kW generators that will at least keep our trunked system on the air. We also carry a 5 kW generator that, if everything else fails, at least gives us lights and the power to test equipment and execute repairs. Our full load — with radio systems, the mobile-radio-shop trailer and the crew-support trailer — consumes about 25% of the capacity of one of the 60 KW units. This leaves additional power capability for any system(s) in immediate proximity.

The prime power unit is the trailer-mounted set, which is in a hush cover to reduce the noise. The 60 kW generator on the truck provides 100% redundant backup to the prime unit. This allows the prime generator to be taken off line for service without disruption or significant down time. Spare parts — in the form of oil, filters (oil, air and fuel) and belts — are maintained onboard.

As you can see, establishing a disaster-communications capability is not something that should be taken lightly, as there are many moving parts and many complexities. But following the tips offered in this article, as well as those offered last month, should provide a smooth pathway to a successful result.

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.

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