Natural Disasters Uncover Ongoing Emergency Communications Problems

Article excerpt

Recent natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy and the Washington, D.C., metro--area derecho revealed vulnerabilities in first responder communication networks and equipment.

Sandy knocked out wireless phone services in major metropolitan areas. As many as 25 percent of people in affected locations lost cell phone service. Agencies in different jurisdictions have long sought interoperable radios, but Sandy showed what happens when the infrastructure those agencies rely on is destroyed.

Ten years ago, the situation was even worse. First responders struggled with inoperable devices and a lack of interagency communication during the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, prompting the Department of Homeland Security to develop a National Emergency Communications Plan that established a minimum level of interoperability.

Although there have been improvements since then, emergency communications remain challenged by commercial outages that sometimes leave the public without a way to call 911.

Satellite company executives said they are eager to step up and offer their products as an alternative to terrestrial wireless networks and cell towers. They contend that such services would give existing infrastructure added resiliency.

"In the federal world, I find so many agencies feel they have solved the problem by ordering a circuit from Carrier A and then a circuit from Carrier B," said Tony Bardo, assistant vice president of government markets for Hughes Network Systems, a satellite service provider. But "Carrier A [and] Carrier B [are located] right next to each other. Completely vulnerable. ... You have no [real] diversity. You have vendor diversity."

First responders, however, point out that satellite services are prohibitively expensive and have more rigid service plans.

Massachusetts Task Force 1 's urban search and rescue team uses an assortment of satellite technology, but maintaining a relationship with vendors is key, said Chad Council, a technical information specialist with the task force. "If you need somebody to increase your bandwidth at 3 o'clock in the morning, you need to have a phone number that you can call and know that someone is going to be on the other end of that."

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Because no single system is glitch proof, its important to have a layered approach. Each 80-person team in the force breaks into smaller squads to conduct operations, which creates fractured communications requirements, Council said. Though the teams pool equipment and resources as much as possible, each needs to be able to operate independently.

There are drawbacks to every piece of technology used by the team. For example, the task force used handheld satellite phones while doing reconnaissance to figure out how to best direct supplies, but such devices are costly. Additionally, the lines can be oversaturated if other parties are trying to access the network at the same time.

The task force also used a very small aperture terminal (VSAT) trailer, which acts as a satellite ground station, but if other agencies are trying to set up their own system, it can be difficult to find space for the trailer with a dear view of the sky.

Massachusetts Task Force I made that mistake during Hurricane Sandy, when it stationed a trailer near a large building. "It had to be moved by hand to a place where it could actually get a view of the sky," Council said at the Satellite Communications Conference and Expo in New York City.

"At any given time, any one of these could have gone down. ... You kind of have to plan a backup for your backup," he added.

Other first responder groups use a land mobile radio system, said Heather Hogsett, director of the health and homeland security committee for the National Governors Association.

The American Red Cross used sport utility vehicles equipped with satellite dishes during Sandy, said Kevin Kelley, senior director of community preparedness and resilience operations. …