Hurricanes can reshape cities as high winds, storm surges and flooding cause widespread devastation. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 pummeled New Orleans and left in its wake an estimated economic loss exceeding $125 billion. Residents became homeless, historic businesses were destroyed and first responders were stretched to their limits.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted that the 2008 season would be active. More than 15 named hurricanes are forecasted to form in the Atlantic basin between June 1 and Nov. 30. In May, NOAA urged residents living in coastal areas to have an emergency plan in place before a storm hits. According to Conrad C. Lautenbacher, the agency's undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, planning and preparation are key to storm survival and recovery.

The same applies to first-responder agencies that depend on technology before, during and after a natural disaster hits the U.S., especially when it comes to communicating across agencies. In fact, the lack of interoperability between federal, state and local agencies' radio systems hindered operations and response times following Katrina.

Federal and state agencies are adopting and testing interoperable systems to prepare for big storms, said Col. Charles Schulze, the Army National Guard's Maryland state aviation and training officer. Such national disasters can be a bane to radio communications. He said that during a 2006 flood in Maryland, a National Guard helicopter was sent to evaluate the situation and report back to headquarters and first responders on the ground.

The messages never got through.

“They could only communicate by cell phone after they landed somewhere,” Schulze said. “The lack of communication made it difficult for the National Guard to support first responders during the domestic emergency.”

A training flight drill was run in May to practice radio operations that would be needed should a hurricane hit the region this year. During the one-hour drill, Schulze's team used “plain-speak” language to communicate with the Coast Guard in Baltimore and the Maryland Joint Operations Center. It also listened to multiple police and fire calls from Hartford and Montgomery counties. The team used Project 25 radios in Blackhawk helicopters to communicate with ground units.

Schulze was told last year by Army commanders to fast-track approval for such interoperable radio solutions and get them installed into National Guard helicopters to test and deploy. Three months later, the Army's Aviation Missile Command approved a prototype system tested in a Blackhawk helicopter in mid-2007.

The winning system operates on multiple public-safety bands. Radios are backward-compatible and capable of operating in single or dual-frequency analog mode, as well as forward-compatible to operate in digital trunking mode with encryption. They can be installed inside the helicopter's console, but they are removable so they can be switched out for combat radios.

The radios use Motorola programming software so federal agencies can navigate a preassigned menu instead of programming each radio individually, Schulze said. A service person doesn't need to know how to set the radio settings for digital trunking, analog, simplex or duplex communications.

“All of that technical stuff, we military guys don't deal with that much unless we are deployed in domestic operations,” he said.

The next step is to train soldiers how to use the system. During the training exercise, instructors and pilots aboard the Blackhawk practiced using plain speak, basic radio operation and how to navigate preprogrammed menus in the radio.

Voice communications from helicopters to Baltimore County fire personnel on the ground were tested over the 800 MHz, UHF, VHF and FM bands. Capt. David Paolucci of the Maryland National Guard said in the past there was no way his pilots could use analog communications to talk to first responders on the ground who used digital technology.

“You can drill down to the first responder — the person you actually need to talk to — and have direct two-way communications that are secure,” Paolucci said.

But the new system is not without its human challenges. Practice is needed to get it right, Schulze said, because first responders and the military don't routinely use interoperable systems and plain speak. Getting it right involves knowing the technology. It also can mean assigning the same channel to agencies responding to an incident. But while tactical operating channels often are determined in advance by emergency management centers so those on the ground know what working channel is being used for an incident, users in the field need to know how to set the radio to access those channels or the effort is wasted.

For instance, in the May drill the P25 radios in the helicopters seemed to be working, but the team wasn't receiving communications from the ground. When they landed, Schulze approached a firefighter who was unfamiliar with the system. He found the radio wasn't set to the correct channel.

“The challenges can be, if you don't use the interoperability [function] very often, how does that first responder and the helicopter crew responding to the incident scene set their radio to the appropriate channel?” he said. “It takes practice.”

It's a great system, Schulze added. However, it'll take two or three years to have enough radios in circulation, since each radio carries a $65,000 price tag, and the installations are federally funded, he said.

Part of hurricane response is organizing volunteers who can provide human services on the ground. The American Red Cross uses wireless technology to mobilize nationwide volunteers and tests systems bimonthly to ensure their functionality.

Each Red Cross office has the capability to mobilize volunteers for national jobs — a national human resource system in a sense. Depending on the magnitude of the disaster, the organization must contact from 15 to 600 people simultaneously to let them know that their volunteer services are needed. It must happen fast, because the nonprofit organization assures local agencies that a team will be sent to the incident within four hours of receiving a call.

In the past, volunteers at an operations center used a telephone list to verbally contact other volunteers. This takes time and pulls bodies away from more pressing response assignments, such as setting up shelters and provisions prior to a hurricane making landfall.

Aniko Bahr, readiness manager for the Broward County, FL chapter of the American Red Cross, said the organization required an automated alert system to free up volunteers' time. Last year, it beta-tested AtHoc's wireless emergency-alert system as part of a pilot program to test its capabilities in natural disasters; the Red Cross must be able to organize enough volunteers to set up more than four evacuation centers within the disaster zone if a hurricane hits. AtHoc donated the emergency-alert technology at no cost to the Red Cross, Bahr said. Now, it is a permanent addition to the organization's IT infrastructure.

To alert volunteers, Bahr logs onto the system, which is pre-programmed with 600-plus names of registered volunteers, with one to four contact numbers or e-mail addresses for each. The system's database also includes sub-groups based on individuals' experience, such as those capable of driving emergency vehicles.

Alerts can be tailored to the specific incident. Additionally, the system lets users decide which sub-groups receive alerts, at what intervals and at what contact addresses. It also can send alarms for four hours to more than 24 hours until a reply is received from volunteers.

An essential part of the system is its ability to give end users a menu of responses from volunteers, such as location and availability. The system reports back to headquarters on who received the alert and their specific response.

“The response and report feature is essential for our deployment,” she said. “I know who got it, who is available and when they are available as soon as the people respond to the messages. In the first hour I might have several teams to send where they are needed.”

$125 billion

Estimated economic loss in the city of New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina.