[StBernard] Emergency Radios Improve After Katrina

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Wed Aug 23 22:29:06 EDT 2006

Emergency Radios Improve After Katrina

The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 23, 2006; 2:20 PM

-- Some boats searching the flood waters left by Hurricane Katrina were
crowded with survivors. Others had plenty of room. And whenever a packed
boat came upon a rooftop with more stranded people, there was no way to
radio one of the empty boats to come help.

The storm knocked out most of the towers for cell phones and radio systems
used by state and local agencies. Yet even if the equipment had kept
working, it would have been impossible to connect with many other emergency
crews out on the water that night.

"It was almost prehistoric," said Walter Boasso, a Louisiana state senator
who joined the search on a boat in the pitch dark of New Orleans. "There
were hundreds of boats in the water. If there was no room in our boat, there
was no one else we could call."

A year later, rescuers and relief workers along the Gulf Coast are more
likely to be able to communicate with one another during a crisis than they
were after Katrina. But despite the patchwork measures taken to help avert a
repeat of last year's debacle _ itself a repeat of communications failures
on Sept. 11, 2001 _ political turf battles still threaten to create a Tower
of Babel any time there's an emergency requiring a response from more than
one of the nation's 60,000 public safety entities.

It's been more than a decade since the first World Trade Center attack and
the Oklahoma City bombing provoked new urgency to upgrade the nation's
hodgepodge of wireless systems with unifying technologies. While the
hurricane debacle brought new immediacy, action has remained scarce beyond
the creation of more joint panels and task forces that, like their
predecessors, have been bogged down by disagreement over how to do it, how
to pay for it, and the frictions that typically arise whenever multiple arms
of government "work together."

At the very least, though, officials have seized upon the unfortunate
momentum provided by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to implement interim
solutions using relatively low-cost, low-tech equipment that's been
available for years.

One incentive for this swift response _ compared with the communications
problems exposed in New York on Sept. 11 _ is that hurricane season is much
more predictable than the next potential earthquake, plane crash or
terrorist attack.

"Given the fragile condition of the Gulf region, the president directed that
we work very closely with Louisiana officials and local officials down there
with a joint emergency operating plan on steroids," said George Foresman,
the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's under secretary for preparedness.

Those efforts began with repairs to existing wireless networks damaged by
last year's storms. This included the installation of new radio towers to
fill network gaps in rural areas while providing more overlap in overall
wireless coverage, boosting odds that emergency workers will find a signal
even if some transmitters fail.

Local and federal agencies also have purchased more bridging systems that
can patch together many assorted makes and models of radios. Responders
arriving at the scene of an incident can plug a handset from their system
into the bridge and communicate with others over an assigned channel.

Louisiana's state troopers now have more than a dozen ACU-1000 bridging
systems from Raytheon Co., said Lt. Lawrence McLeary, public affairs
supervisor for the Louisiana State Police.

Bridging equipment was already deployed in New Orleans before Katrina, but
the facility where the equipment was housed was flooded. Now, state and
federal agencies have been outfitting trucks with a combination of bridging,
satellite and power-generation equipment so they can be moved around and
transmit from areas where there are network or electrical outages. The
National Guard, for example, recently awarded EFJ Inc. a $12 million order
for 25 such systems, including one already delivered to the guard unit in

Efforts also have been made to anticipate other obstacles: some
cash-strapped agencies may be using equipment that's too antiquated to
bridge. Or, as with Katrina, one agency's system might be disabled while
another's continues to work. For such occasions, the Louisiana State Police
has purchased 300 extra portable radios that can be loaned to other

In all, $2.8 million from the State Police budget and about $5 million of
the $8.6 million in federal homeland security funds awarded to Louisiana
since Katrina and Rita have gone to communications projects, according to

But the portrait of urgency and cooperation behind the past year's progress
has been marred by more of the political elbowing that has epitomized the
past decade.

Such tensions were evident this month as the DHS chafed at the prospect of
the Federal Communications Commission passing new regulations for emergency
communications, urging the FCC to work within existing DHS-led "frameworks"

Likewise, in the Gulf region, state and local entities have clashed in the
aftermath of the storms.

In January, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco formed a new entity
within her office to "Design, construct, administer, and maintain a
statewide shared voice, data, and imagery communication system."

Despite a mandate to collaborate with municipal agencies, that effort has
been widely received as heavy-handed, dominated by the State Police and
state homeland security office.

Months later, Louisiana's state Senate and House passed very different bills
by a wide margin to address similar issues only to see those measures die in
the other chamber. Both bills, one written by Sen. Boasso and passed
unanimously by the Senate, drew stiff opposition from the governor's office.

"People were complaining that the locals were being shut out of the
process," said Rep. Tim Burns, who sponsored the other bill in the House.
Burns said he and Boasso, both Republicans, were "trying to take the
politics out of the process."

Blanco, a Democrat, flexed her muscle against the bills, with high-ranking
staff opposing them at public hearings. Efforts to discuss matter with
Blanco's office were not successful.

As memories of the storm fade, such clashes over control and autonomy may
only intensify. Yet some are hopeful.

"You're never going to get 100 percent shared national vision," said
Foresman at DHS. But, he asserted, the past year's cooperation has created
"a very viable template in terms of the level of detail and planning needed
that we can transport to other states" and win over "local officials who own
their own radio."

Jim Walker, Alabama's director of homeland security, said he's used "a
carrot and stick" to guide local entities toward common goals set by the
governor and Legislature. "I sat down with every point of contact from all
our counties and our (Indian) tribe" to secure their cooperation, requiring
them to get all city governments and agencies involved.

You need to respect that "the county sheriffs don't work for me," he said.
"There's a certain pain threshold."

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