Speaker: Disaster communications ‘not ready’ a year after Katrina
CHARLOTTE–There are many lessons to be learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but the public-safety communications problems cited in numerous reports likely will be repeated because critical issues are not being addressed, a first responder at the scene said during a panel at the IWCE/MRT Summit.
“Things are not any better today than they were the day before Katrina hit,” said Ben Holycross, radio systems manager for Polk County, Fla., who spent a month in Katrina-ravaged Hancock County, Miss. “We are not ready as a nation, we are not ready as individual organizations, we don’t have the … transportable infrastructure we need, and we don’t have the trained personnel who are ready to deploy.”
Post-Katrina communications certainly have received considerable attention, as they have been the subject of reports from the White House, the U.S. House of Representatives and the FCC, Holycross said. But many of the reports focused more on consumer-oriented issues than public-safety communications.
“The ones sitting inside the Beltway are assigning a couple of staffers who sit in cubicles to write some reports based on what’s coming out of CNN,” Holycross said. “The mud hadn’t dried out in Mississippi, and they had a 280-page report already. But, …if you talk to the people who were actually there, their viewpoints were not represented in any of the reports that were put out.
“We’ve got lots of reports, we’ve got lots of finger-pointing, we’ve got lots of unimplemented recommendations, we’ve got lots of confusion about what the real problems and needs for communications are in a disaster environment, and we’ve got lots of people going in different directions.”
Holycross recommended that the President select a single individual to “fix” the public-safety communications problem and give the appointee the necessary authority to do the job. For one thing, deployed personnel need to be trained technically and prepared mentally for the task at hand—something that was not always the case in 2004, when Polk County was hit by three hurricanes in a six-week period.
“People think, ‘I’ll send my folks to this disaster to help out,’ but it’s not like going to a conference,” Holycross said. “Three times during 2004 we had outside agencies come in to help us. A contingent would pull up, and the leader would get out and say, ‘OK, we’re here to help. Where’s our hotel room and when are you going to feed us?’ I wanted to say, ‘What part of ‘disaster’ don’t you understand?’”
Indeed, the Katrina’s destruction of Hancock County was so complete that it was akin to “going back in time” to an era with no communication method other than word of mouth when Polk County personnel arrived at that the scene following the catastrophic storm, Holycross said. In fact, the situation was so dire that some issues that much-discussed topics such as 911 system survivability actually were irrelevant, he said.
“Folks, there’s no telephones, there’s no telephone lines, there’s no telephone-company central office, there’s no cellular, and there’s no cellular switching connectivity,” Holycross said. “There’s no one who’s going to make a 911 call,”
More self-contained, transportable communications systems should be made available, but the cost should be shared nationwide, Holycross said. Local taxpayers paid for Polk County’s 100-foot portable tower used during the aftermath of Katrina, because federal funding was beyond its reach—a circumstance that should be changed, he said.
“We sit right between Tampa and Orlando. We don’t qualify for the UASI grant funding, so we don’t get any. They fight amongst themselves, [saying,] ‘Well, we need to buy some more Sea-Doos, because we didn’t have enough at the last bomb-squad picnic.’
Let me tell you: When the [liquefied natural gas] tanker pulls into the Tampa harbor and the terrorists detonate it, or when they set of the suitcase nuke at DisneyWorld, guess who’s going to have to go into the urban areas that are getting all the money and pick up the pieces for them? The surrounding agencies that don’t qualify for funding.”