Hurricanes, Fires and FloodsThursday, July 24, 2008
In California recently, we had more than 1,400 fires burning at once with more than 25,000 firefighters, lots of aircraft and even the National Guard. Meanwhile, as I write this, the first hurricane warning of the season has the Texas coast on full alert and the midwest is still digging out from the recent floods. During all of these events, and the ones that will follow the rest of this year and into next year, the first responder and commercial communications systems have continued to work well with some outages here and there and some overuse during evacuations and the like.
We all know that first responder interoperability is an issue and will remain so for a long time. During the fires we had firefighters from many states and several counties, each with their own set of radio frequencies, and some of the time the commercial networks were called into service to help overcome some of the interoperability issues. However, because there is no priority set up on commercial networks, there are sometimes congestion issues between first responder and civilian use of the systems.
As the fire near me was unfolding, I was monitoring the amateur radio channels to see if I would be needed for communications support and I was listening to the fire, police and sheriff's channels as well. The coordination went pretty smoothly except for several times when the sheriff's department's feet on the street were not notified about road closures and evacuations and some of those who had to flee the fire had less than a ten-minute warning. Still, there is no doubt that ALL of the fire, police and sheriff's personnel did a great job, saved most of the houses and brought the fire under control as fast as they could given the shifting winds.
But this blog is not about the emergency communications systems or the commercial communications systems that are used during these types of disasters. Rather, it is about the people and equipment who stand behind the networks to help provide communications and keep them running. If you remember back to Katrina, you will recall that communications systems were down for days and even weeks. Generators at hardened sites were underwater and telephone lines that carry the signals from the tower back to commercial switches and the first responder command centers were down. There was no power so those inside the city who had handheld radios were able to use them until their batteries ran down and when they could not find any power or charger to recharge them.
There was mass confusion with military, state and local entities all trying to reestablish channels of communications and many stories of helicopters and boats being able to see each other but not able to talk to each other. But again, this blog is not about Katrina and the breakdown of communications. It is about the reason communications were down for such a long time and the fact that this did not have to happen.
At the edge of the city outside the restricted area, there were massive amounts of communications equipment and qualified personnel. There were city and state two-way radio technicians backed by their radio equipment suppliers, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and others with COWs (Cells on Wheels), replacement batteries, temporary microwave links and all manner of material to put the city's public and private communications networks back together. They were there, but they were kept out of the city because they were not first responders and because they weren't, they were not permitted into the restricted areas.
So day after day this equipment and the people who knew how to repair and replace the communications infrastructure were kept out the city, communications continued to be a problem and the outages lasted a lot longer than they should have. As we approach the rest of the fire season, the hurricane season and who knows what other disasters that may be thrown our way, I have to wonder if any work has been done on plans that would enable these communications professionals to be permitted to do their jobs and to work with the first responders to ensure they have the best possible communications available.
I don't know how to get the first responder community, especially those from the federal government, to understand that having skilled people with replacement equipment on site and getting them into the field would enhance their ability to communicate and could also save the lives of those who are in the middle of a disaster and relying on their communications systems.
I am sure most of these technical folks have been trained in at least the basic precautions they need to take when working inside a scene. I was trained by the California Department of Forestry in a number of subjects and issued gear to protect me while "shadowing" in incident commander or some other fire official. As I recall, it took about three Saturdays and as a result of that training I am permitted on the fire grounds (supervised). I don't think this type of training would be too burdensome for the commercial technicians in the field and certainly cities and counties could train their own service technicians as well since most of the training is common sense.
From what I have been able to glean from all of the after-action reports, the biggest single problem was the lack of communications that went on for days. At our recent fire, many of the fire crews were outside commercial coverage areas as the fire was burning deep in national park territory, but those fighting it as it approached the city of Goleta had both their own communications, the amateur radio group and the commercial networks, although during the evacuations the commercial networks were jammed with civilian traffic trying to coordinate families and other logistics. All of the commercial network operators had people on standby as one of the big concerns with this fire was that the smoke was causing power outages. When it blew through the high-tension power lines, it caused the lines to short and power was out in various places for hours at a time, making communications even more difficult.
As we continue into the fire season here in the west, the hurricane season down south and perhaps more flooding in the midwest, not to mention ice storms later this year in the east, I think the communications industry needs to make it clear to the first responder "bosses" that their people will be better able to perform their jobs faster and more safely if the communications professionals are permitted to do their job. The commercial network operators have staging areas around the country and Motorola, M/A-Com and others stand at the ready with emergency communications equipment. It will be years before we have a truly interoperable first responder communications system, but in the meantime we should be able to keep what we have running and fix it in a timely fashion so it can be in place to help those who are trying to help us.
Andrew M. Seybold