LAS VEGAS--A panel of public-safety and critical communications officials discussed the lessons that were learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the steps that need to be taken to improve emergency preparedness for the future during a session this morning at IWCE 2006. They agreed that the federal government needs to provide greater support and direction going forward, primarily financial support, but also said they didn’t want the feds to get directly involved.

Robert Dawson, president and CEO of SouthernLinc Wireless, said that hardening tower sites and other infrastructure is a worthy goal, but cautioned that there’s only so much commercial and public-safety operators can do without government assistance. “We need funding. Where’s the money going to come from for [us] to upgrade and maintain these systems” to make them Katrina-proof, he said.

Harlin McEwen, chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police communications and technology committee, agreed. “The government is wonderful at producing reports about what went wrong. There were about a dozen reports after Katrina, and they all said the same thing, and they all reached the same conclusions” McEwen said. “We already know what to do and, because of that, it’s not going to take long to develop solutions. It’s a matter of the government helping us and supporting us. We need leadership at the local, state and—especially—federal levels to help us solve these problems.”

Short of a meaningful influx of federal funding, there are other tactics that can improve emergency-response communications in preparation for the next catastrophe. Ted O’Brien, vice president of channel development for Iridium Satellite, said a system-of-systems approach to developing mission-critical communications systems is needed. “No one system can do everything or would have the capacity that would be needed,” in the aftermath of a major disaster, O’Brien said. “For instance, we could provide the voice piece, but we can’t move large data files.”

David Jones, president of the National Emergency Number Association, said public-safety organizations need to think beyond their local perspectives when developing preparedness plans. “All disaster recovery plans need to be re-evaluated,” Jones said. “Current plans don’t take into account what happens when an entire region’s infrastructure has been wiped out.”

McEwen agreed. “When there’s a problem in one area, most agencies call on their neighbors to assist, but you can’t do that when there are no neighbors.” But McEwen added that the local perspective still has relevance, at least in one regard. “In California, for instance, you know you’re going to get earthquakes once in a while, so you need to harden towers accordingly,” he said. “You have to assess the local risks and build to those risks.”

Wanda McCarley, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, agreed that a cookie-cutter approach to emergency preparedness no longer works. “What works in one disaster doesn’t always work in another,” she said. McCarley added that a holistic approach to developing future preparedness plans also is a must. “You can fix the technology part, but if you’re not also addressing the people and policy issues, you’re not going to fix the problem.”

McEwen made a distinction between Katrina and other events, including 9/11. “We are used to disasters—Katrina was a catastrophe,” he said. “The three-state area that was affected was the size of the U.K. We weren’t prepared to deal with it.”

Given the enormity and uniqueness of Katrina, the panelists were asked whether it makes sense to plan and invest to harden infrastructure in preparation for an event that might not occur again for another 50-100 years, if at all. The unanimous response is that it not only makes sense, it’s a necessity.

“While we need to do reasonable-threat analyses and even though it’s not possible to prepare for something on the level of Katrina, we have an obligation to try,” Jones said.