It appears that many local and some state agencies are taking a proactive approach toward disaster communications, in spite of the dearth of leadership, guidance and support from the federal government. Generally speaking, this trend is positive. But on closer examination, many have not put the concept of disaster communications into the larger context of disaster response. This failure leads to the proverbial rocks in the roadway. I know this from experience, as many of those rocks have some of my blood on them, from learning lessons the hard way.

Those planning for disaster communications need to understand the larger context of disaster response first, because the response for technical-service providers fundamentally is different than that for the standard public-safety agency. The typical thought process in public safety is "We can send 10, 20, 50 police units, an ambulance or two, and a fire truck or two. When they get there, someone else will give them assignments and provide whatever they need." It is that "whatever they need" part that makes all the difference to the technical-services provider.

My own experience is drawn from providing disaster communications during hurricanes Andrew, Opal, Charlie, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne, Rita, and Wilma, as well as numerous smaller tornado, brush-fire and law-enforcement incidents. During three of these events — Charlie, Frances and Jeanne — we were the victims as well as the responders.

For those fortunate enough to have not experienced a disaster at home, or who have yet to be deployed into a major disaster, let me point out a few items for consideration.

  • There likely will be no electrical service in the disaster area. While this is a non-issue for law enforcement, fire services or EMS, it means a great deal to those who must provide communications for those responders.

  • There likely will be no functional public-safety land mobile radio systems on the air or, if there are, they will be severely overloaded.

  • Disaster-communications providers will need to be located in the worst of the devastated area, as that is the location most in need of the transportable infrastructure. Unlike the other first responders, you probably will not have the opportunity to drive 30-plus miles away to stay in a motel with electricity, running water and functioning restaurants nearby. You will, in fact, be living on site with your equipment, making sure it continues to operate while performing all of the other tasks that will be asked of you.

  • The local water and sewer utilities will be out of service.

  • All of the local businesses will be destroyed, without power and of no use.

  • Local communications infrastructure — including telephone, cellular and personal communications services — will not be functioning. Many responders count on being able to use cell phones to stay in contact with their home agency. This usually does not work out well for those involved.

While I could go on at some length about what is not available, suffice it to say, "If you don't bring it with you, you just don't have it." Even with the aforementioned proactive approach, the overall number of public-safety agencies preparing to provide disaster communications is very small. Should you wind up being tasked to provide this service, relief personnel will be few and far between. While any police, fire or EMS agency can provide staff to do their functions, not all have a communications organization organic to their department. In many cases, agencies are subscribers on someone else's system or contract for their communications service. Those who contract their service would be well advised to review their contracts and see what — if any — support their vendor contractually is obligated to provide in the event of a local disaster. They also need to explore what support they can expect from their vendor in support of deployed staff.

Before exploring some of the more arcane areas where a knowledge base needs to be developed, it is necessary to define the communications services that need to be provided in a disaster area.

Land-mobile radio (LMR): Regardless of where first responders come from, they have certain common needs in order to do their job. The first of these is an LMR system. Larger agencies — in particular, those that likely will be providing disaster-communications units — operate on trunking systems at home. In developing deployable disaster-communications systems, what works is to provide a transportable trunked system that will support not only those members of your own agency but also those with similar vendor products. In the case of the larger agencies, this typically will be Motorola or Harris systems.

Because the number of P25 systems is not yet predominant, we are keeping our transportable Motorola IntelliRepeater system in an analog configuration. Once up and operating, we can program virtually any Motorola trunked subscriber radio to work on this system. In the case of Harris, my understanding is they are in the process of phasing out the old EDACS technology and will be implementing their own infrastructure.

In addition to the trunked system in our Aluma Tower trailer, we maintain several conventional repeaters to provide service to responders with non-trunked assets. The assets include:

  • Three 800 MHz conventional repeaters capable of providing service on the mutual-aid conventional channels.
  • Three UHF conventional repeaters.
  • Three VHF conventional repeaters.
  • Two low-band military radios, which can tie us into a National Guard, Reserve or regular military network and/or provide a retrains capability to extend their network coverage.

With this equipment, we can accommodate 90%-plus of the first responders coming into a disaster area with repeaters on which their equipment can be programmed to operate.

Channel patching: The establishment of repeaters or trunked systems for the first responders is only the beginning of disaster-communications responsibilities. With those systems on the air, it is necessary to be able to patch the disparate systems into networked communications channels that will allow responders to share such channels, regardless of whether they use VHF, UHF or 800 MHz trunked systems. There are several vendors who provide patching equipment designed for this type of application. We have two of the Raytheon ACU-T products with connecting cables for a variety of radios.

Typically, one of these is kept in our trailer along with a half-height rack that holds low-band, VHF, UHF and 800 MHz mobile radios cabled into the ACU-T. While the mobile radios have all of the common channels pre-programmed into them, we can reprogram any of the radios as necessary to support the required patch. The second ACU-T typically is kept in the mobile radio shop trailer along with several other types of radios, to allow for patching some more exotic combinations.

Reach-back communications: When deployed to a disaster area, all first-responder units need the ability to "reach back," i.e., to communicate with their home agencies. The only reliable systems that will support this ability are satellite and high-frequency radio. The proliferation of satellite communications systems in the last decade has made them available and affordable for virtually any public-safety agency. This has resulted in a double-edged sword.

During Hurricane Katrina, for example, the area from the Texas/Louisiana border all the way to Pensacola, Fla., was affected. The bandwidth demand from the number of satellite units operating in the area far exceeded the available capacity. Channel contention in a major widespread event such as Katrina makes satellite communications unreliable. The advent of affordable satellite solutions has caused a widespread exodus from the realm of HF radio. However, some of the newer HF radio equipment — along with capabilities such as automatic link establishment — warrants another look at HF radio use in disaster operations.

Finally, we maintain two 0.75-meter TracStar satellite units, each capable of roughly a T-1 of Internet connectivity and each supporting four VoIP telephone circuits, with dial tone provided from our home base. In addition, we carry two of the Iridium satellite handsets and several HF radios.

Part 2: More things to consider when contemplating a disaster-communications initiative.

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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