Skip to content

Communication Breakdown

IMMEDIATELY AFTER Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, dozens of emergency relief workers from the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) headed to Baton Rouge on a mission to support firefighters and paramedics. They brought with them some cutting-edge communications technologies, such as satellite phones, to ensure that they could keep in touch with the teams deploying across the disaster area. But the satellite phones were sometimes difficult to operate, and the team ended up relying on a less sophisticated technology: cheap cell phones loaded with 400 minutes of talk time from a phone card and a working area code from outside of the disabled area, all purchased from a local Target store, says Eric Lamar, assistant to the IAFF president. While the improvised system of cell phone connectivity was intermittent at best, Lamar says, it was the most reliable tool the team could find.

Lamar is working in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and his story of communications difficulties echoes that of other first responders and relief workers deployed to the front lines of the Katrina disaster. When the hurricane’s heavy winds and rain blasted through the Gulf Coast, over two dozen 911 call centers went down, more than a thousand cell sites were knocked out of service, and in excess of 20 million phone calls did not go through, according to congressional testimony from Kevin J. Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

This left citizens and first responders incommunicado and made it all but impossible for rescuers to contact local agencies. First responders had to adapt. Their experiences hold lessons for the future.

Radio problems. Two-way radios can be effective inside a particular first-responder group, but they don’t always allow contact from outsiders. This was a lesson learned by Dr. William Jetter, a member of Ohio Task Force 1 and a professor with the American Public University System. Setter’s team was one of 28 Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Teams under the authority of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sent to the area.

The team was in the disaster zone about two weeks, and like most US&R teams, it carries all the communication tools it needs, Jetter says. “The team has Nextel components for day-to-day needs and travel. Once they get into an area where there’s no cell service, they have their own radio communications and carry their own radio gear.” They also have satellite phones so they can keep in contact with the base camp.

When the team got to the scene, communications problems immediately arose, Jetter says. They had their own radio communications, but “they still needed to get hold of other people, and that’s where some of the communications breakdowns started.”

For example, it was difficult to get in touch with the person who was supposed to help them get to where they could be of most use. Ohio Task Force 1 was staged at a military facility two hours from the “ground zero” area of the disaster, Jetter says, but because they couldn’t communicate smoothly with the local responders, it took them eight hours to make the two-hour trip.

Interoperability. In June 2004, the United States Conference of Mayors released an interoperability survey that covered 192 cities in 41 states. The survey revealed that different radio frequencies hamper intercity emergency communications in 75 percent of those cities, and 88 percent of respondents reported that their communications equipment was not interoperable with equipment of federal agencies such as FEMA.

The difficulties that Jetter’s team had in contacting other agencies and first responders indicates that not much has changed with regard to interoperability of communications equipment. Some solutions will require legislative action, and to that end, Congress has begun efforts to address the issue.

Even before Katrina focused renewed attention on the problem, Congressman Bart Stupak (D-MI) had reintroduced the Public Safety Interoperability Act (H.R. 1323) in March. It would take money from government auctions of bands of frequencies from the radio spectrum. Stupak’s office notes that the full cost of interoperability could be as much as $18 billion, but spectrum sales could bring in from $10 to $20 billion.

New tools. Achieving full first-responder interoperability could take a long time, and as Katrina showed, disasters won’t wait for bureaucratic hurdles to be overcome. Technology providers are seeing opportunities in the mayhem.

W2COG. The World Wide Consortium for the Grid (W2COG) began last October as a government-sponsored effort to follow the Internet model for building interoperable technologies faster, according to Chris Gunderson, executive director of the group and an associate research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS). The not-for-profit group, which was started by the Department of Defense to facilitate military communications, now has 39 members and is looking to host a symposium to attract more.

One of W2COG’s goals is to make high-tech businesses aware of the “most critical communications issues that government faces, and let the entrepreneurial, commercial spirit work on solving our problems,” Gunderson says. The group would act as a brokerage, “putting technology providers in touch with technology consumers” in a disaster.

It would also ensure that communication products remain interoperable, allowing users to “cherry pick technology modules and bundle them in ways that enhance communication,” he says.

Satellite phones. Satellite phones are often used in disaster scenes because they don’t rely on cell-phone towers. Almost a full month after the hurricane hit, FCC Chairman Martin estimated that 301,000 landlines were still down (as well as three 911 call centers), but “satellite service providers did not experience damage to their infrastructure,” he noted, and they helped to link law enforcement, medical, and other emergency personnel during and after the chaos.

Vendors recognize that first responders are increasingly including satellite phones in their arsenal, so they are adding new features and functionalities to make them more effective for those applications. For example, Liz DeCastro, corporate communications director for satellite-phone maker Iridium, says that solar chargers and other chargers that can be plugged into a vehicle’s cigarette lighter are important tools for those deployed to areas where electricity may be missing for days or weeks.

DeCastro says Iridium is also beta testing a “push-to-talk” technology that will allow the company’s satellite phones to be used to broadcast messages to many users at once. For example, FEMA staff could use it to speak simultaneously to dozens of responders in the field.

Broadband in a box. The future may bring other satellite-based communication tools to first responders as well. Kirby Farrell, founder of Herndon, Virginia-based Segovia, says that the company’s global IP satellite service offers broadband Internet access that can be set up instantly. According to Farrell, the Army Corps of Engineers uses Segovia’s communications services for their first responders, who have trucks around the country ready to respond to any disaster.

When the trucks are deployed, they point an antenna at the satellite, which connects them to Segovia’s network. “They have dedicated circuits coming in from our network center to the Army Corps of Engineers’ backbone,” Farrell says, meaning that they can connect securely to their home network from anywhere.

This model will work for first responders deployed to disaster areas, he says, because having a broadband connection allows responders to use voice over IP (VoIP) to make calls with standard telephones. It even allows for phone banks to be set up so that local citizens can contact family and friends quickly.

Because VoIP is cheap (roughly four cents a minute, versus fees for satellite phones that can be as much as one dollar a minute), it can be cost effective. Further, many emergency response communication systems are Web-based, meaning they can be used anywhere that a network connection can be set up.

Gunderson says that W2COG also sent a team to Mississippi after Katrina to create a “hastily formed network” that combined satellite and microwave technology to create a large-scale wireless Internet connection. “The idea was to extend the Internet, including the ability to do VoIP to the folks who needed it where they needed it,” he says.

The team comprised representatives from NPS, the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. It also included volunteer commercial vendors from companies such as Microsoft and Cisco. Micosoft provided a newly acquired software tool called Groove that facilitates collaboration between ad hoc workgroups, and Cisco brought router technology.

Security. One of the goals of WZCOG is to ensure that security is built into these hastily formed networks. “Security is absolutely critical,” says Gunderson. “The Red Crescent, the Red Cross, and the U.S. Army are not eager to share all of their secrets with each other. They’ll share some information in a first-responder scenario,” but only what they choose.

The cutting-edge technologies increasingly being used to facilitate first-responder communications are still far from perfect. For example, the IAFF’s Lamar notes that the satellite phones his team used caused frustration because they had to be activated first for satellite use and then again for cell phone use, a procedure that took precious time. “If you’re not conversant with all that up front, it’s going to be a waste of time figuring it out,” he says.

Lamar says that the most important lesson he learned from responding to Katrina was to bring in the basics with you, so that when you find your place, you’re setting it up and not trying to do procurement on the ground in a disaster area.”

Peter Piazza is an associate editor with Security Management.