Maximizing Emergency Communication

By Stuver, Patrick | Risk Management, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Maximizing Emergency Communication

Stuver, Patrick, Risk Management

Natural disasters on the scale of hurricane Katrina inevitable bring chugs and devastation, but the communication failure between government agencies following the crisis was more surprising to many thou the hurricane itself, Katrina affected un urea the size of Great Britain and left 80% of New Orleans under writer, television images showed thousands of people suffering for days while Whiting for food, water and evacuation, prompting the question: what took so long?

If nothing else, Katrina forced local and federal government agencies to at least consider the deficiencies in their organizational and communication structures, as well as public safety capabilities. Failure to do so invites a repeat of the galling lack of competence that allowed the tragedy in New Orleans to unfold. To best avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, emergency agency employees need mass notification systems in order to implement, coordinate and manage disaster prevention and recovery efforts. 911 emergency communications centers are often overcome by calls during a disaster, so it is critical to have a mass communication system that can send out a singular message. Louisiana agencies could have utilized a mass notification system to reach bus drivers and private businesses to transport evacuees to other cities.

Mass notification is an automated system that sends voice and/or text messages to large numbers of people at once, preventing many of the communications failures that hamper disaster recovery and business continuity. A mass notification system provides government agencies and private companies with real-time situation updates, online messaging and conference calling to coordinate action and maintain continuity of government. Business continuity managers and government disaster planners are spurring the adoption of mass notification technologies quickly since 9/11, the Southeast Asia tsunami and, now, Hurricane Katrina.

Communication Breakdown

The Department of Homeland Security now manages the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), whose National Response Plan promised "vastly improved coordination among federal, state, local and tribal organizations to help save lives" from storms, floods, earthquakes or terrorist assaults. The purpose of this department is to better handle emergencies such as Hurricane Katrina and to improve communications between organizations.

Better communications were supposed to be a highlight of the plan, but FEMA officials were caught by surprise when the coordination of rescue efforts on August 29 and August 30, 2005 was hampered by an inability to communicate. Many telephones, including most mobile phones, were not working due to line breaks or the destruction of base stations or power failures. Although some base stations had their own back-up generators, this complicated efforts to monitor field conditions and coordinate response. It took up to six days to get working telephones to some FEMA employees on the ground.

In a number of cases, reporters were asked to brief public officials on the conditions in areas where information was not reaching them any other way. Radio provided tactical and emergency communications as well as health and welfare inquiries. Broadcasting and publishing on the Internet became an important means of distributing information to evacuees and the rest of the world.

More than 50 civilian aircraft responding to separate requests for evacuations from hospitals and other agencies swarmed to the area a day after Katrina hit, but FEMA blocked their efforts. Aircraft operators complained that FEMA waved off a number of evacuation attempts, saying the rescuers were not authorized. "Many planes and helicopters simply sat idle," according to Thomas Judge, president of the Association of Air Medical Services.

When multiple agencies arrived on the scene, they were often on different hand-held radio frequency bands and, as a result, could not coordinate their efforts or communicate with each other. …

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