Road warriors help Gulf Coast battle back
Ben Holycross is the radio systems manager for Polk County, Fla. He was part of a team known as Task Force Polk, which was dispatched from Florida after Hurricane Katrina to re-establish communications in one of the hardest-hit areas of Mississippi, Hancock County. He talked to contributing writer Lynnette Luna about his experience.
Polk County Radio Services — which provides voice and data services to all county agencies, 14 municipalities and several state and federal agencies — is part of the county’s Division of Emergency Management. Of the eight-person staff, six of us are field-deployable and have been divided into two three-person teams, which comprise the communications contingent for Task Force Polk, which also includes law enforcement, fire service and emergency medical services personnel.
Task Force Polk is a self-contained, self-supporting unit with everything necessary to provide complete public-safety services, from radio systems and fuel trucks to mess halls and portable showers. (The incidents we have responded to typically do not have hotels or restaurants available.)
There are disasters, and then there are catastrophes. Hurricane Katrina was a catastrophe. There was just no way to prepare for it. There was absolutely no public-safety, land mobile radio or commercial communications systems on the air in Hancock County, Miss. — to which we were deployed in the hurricane’s aftermath — because everything was under 11 to 30 feet of water or had been destroyed by winds. This type of storm surge, flooding and destruction had not been seen since the Galveston Hurricane in 1900.
Before leaving for Mississippi, we augmented the first team with a technician from Wireless Technology & Equipment Co. (WTEC), a local Motorola service shop, to create a four-person advance field team, and did the same for the second team — which operated a mobile radio repair shop — by adding a technician from the Orange County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office.
We arrived in Waveland, Miss., at 2 a.m. on Sept. 1, 2005. Our first task was to bring the 800 MHz Motorola trunked radio system live so that the Polk County contingent would have local communications. We also set up our generator trailer and the mobile radio shop prior to sleeping two hours. By 7 a.m., we were raising the Aluma-tower portable telescoping tower to its full 100-foot height and assessing what would be needed. There were a number of response agencies located in the Wal-Mart parking lot in which we were set up, and more were arriving. After a brief survey, I made a satellite call to Motorola — using one of the two handsets we had brought with us — and requested an initial shipment of 150 portable radios with extra batteries and chargers.
The vast majority of the local law-enforcement personnel had stayed during the crisis, but all of their equipment had been destroyed. The sooner we could get them equipped, the sooner they would be able to assist the responders from outside the area. Also, the better able they would be able to personally cope with the disaster that had befallen them. Public-safety people are not very good at sitting around while outsiders do the job for them. They needed to be on the air, and we needed them to be on the air.
Motorola used a corporate jet to fly the radios we requested to Baton Rouge, La. A Motorola employee picked up the radios there and drove them to us in Waveland the next morning. The total time from request to delivery onsite was less than 18 hours.
Although local personnel didn’t have satellite phones, everyone who brought satellite equipment with them was trying to hit the same satellites in the Western Hemisphere. From Texas to Pensacola, everyone was slamming those satellites. Fortunately, Harris Corp. donated 10 satellite links. We received one of them, and the 2 Mb of bandwidth were incredibly helpful. The 3-meter dish from Harris was aimed just above the eastern horizon and was hitting a satellite over the Mediterranean, so we had good access.
Meanwhile, Motorola had gone into a tower site in the north end of the county that was still standing and dropped in a trunked system that covered two-thirds of county and had it operating in 10 days; between the two of us, only one corner of the county was left with limited to no coverage. Motorola also established a dispatch and E911 center in a double-wide mobile home positioned next to the tower site.
We also coordinated with a group of staff and students from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, Calif. All had volunteered their technical expertise to establish network connectivity between all of the response and recovery operations. Although there was some initial talk of developing a project to explore the boundary area between civil and military communications within a disaster, NPS decided, after assessing the situation, to work directly with us.
After gathering their equipment and preparing the logistics, NPS established a Wi-Fi mesh network using equipment provided by Malvern, Pa.-based Rajant Corp., along with point-to-point links connecting all of the responder command vehicles in the immediate area with a 20 Mb network. An entire contingent of Navy, Marine, and Air Force officers were doing everything from digging holes to climbing towers and configuring state-of-the-art equipment. The long-term results of this project may provide a new voice and data communications capability never before envisioned.
Our day typically began at 5:30 a.m., followed shortly thereafter by first responders and personnel from local agencies arriving for batteries and chargers in preparation for the 6 a.m. shift change. Throughout the day, we dealt with radio repairs, programming, battery charging, special requests, coordination and generator maintenance. Another shift change took place between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., with activity then picking up again until about midnight. From midnight until about 2 a.m., we typically caught up on paperwork, tried to clean the mess made during the day, attend to personal hygiene and prep radios and equipment for the next day.
In the first week on site, my technicians programmed more than 700 radios. We had people coming into the area who would stay for a few days and then move on to be replaced by personnel from other agencies. For those who came in with Motorola 800 MHz trunked radios, we would program them on our system.
Agencies coming in whose personnel did not have Motorola trunked radios were assigned loaner radios for use while they were there. For agencies whose people needed to operate on other equipment and frequencies, we used our VHF and UHF repeaters and Raytheon JPS patching equipment to tie them in. Every day brought a new coordination, engineering, repair or restoration challenge.
Unlike the other responding agencies, which typically had enough personnel to establish two 12-hour shifts, the total capability of our four-person teams meant that one team was manning the radio shop while the other team was in the field. It was a continuous operation, with sleep and meals optional.
The effort paid off, as we were able to provide first responders with the communications they needed within hours. Throughout most of the area devastated by Hurricane Katrina, communications was a disaster as well. Within Hancock County, Miss., while not perfect, the communications recovery represented a success story in an otherwise grim saga.