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FEATURE ARTICLE  

 Inter-Agency Communications Systems Remain Uncoordinated  

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 BY DAVID C. WALSH

 

The scale of Hurricane Katrina made history, but the failures it revealed in the government's communications capabilities were not surprising. At all levels of the U.S. infrastructure, crisis planners and first responders operate a bewildering combination of old and new technology that is oftenincompatible with that of other local and regional jurisdictions - and with federal entities.

Replacing old analog systems with interoperable transmission equipment, special gear and redundant systems is an expensive, operationally complex proposition.

The 9/11 commission report completed last year insisted that seamless emergency communications were needed in future crises to replace the current patchwork. The events of September 11, 2001, had exposed shortcomings with lethal consequences for police and firefighters using incompatible gear.

Yet after Katrina, as in 9/11, police could not talk to firefighters and emergency medical teams. Helicopter and boat rescuers had to wave signs and follow one another to survivors. Sometimes, police and other first responders were out of touch with comrades a few blocks away. National Guard relay runners scurried about with scribbled messages as they did during the Civil War.

Blistering post mortems about federal and local communications failures continue. The reaction of former New Jersey governor Tom Kean, a member of the 9/11 Commission and a participant in a Katrina study, is typical. He called congressional laxness on interoperability "a national scandal."

The numbers of government and military communications systems and networks have grown exponentially since 9/11. Discrete transmissions of voice and data can now move via encrypted landline, satellite, radio, broad- and narrow- band and cellular routes. In normal times, these stand-alones work as intended.

But they cannot interoperate, and too often they fail during what disaster planners call "events of national consequence."

Vulnerable, populated metropolitan areas continue to be at the mercy of those flaws. San Francisco, for example, abuts an earthquake fault zone and is home to known terrorist targets such as the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet Chief Gary Gee, head of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Police, knows the city's 200 officers lack proper communications devices, he told National Defense.

"Our radios cannot talk to all first-responder law enforcement, fire service, and [emergency service] agencies in the four Bay Area counties that BART serves," he said. "For starters, not every agency has a trunk-radio system. Some still use obsolete VHF radios."

BART, like many of the country's thousands of law enforcement entities, has an 800-Mhz radio "mutual aid" system for its police, transportation and maintenance departments, all of which have dedicated or common channels called "talk groups."

Gee characterizes Washington's approach to public safety as "billions of dollars for air transportation, millions for ground."

BART communications specialist Gary Hesson noted that interoperability of its Ericcson radio system with other agencies is possible through "a series of repeaters [signal bounce antennas] that are tuned to the statewide 800 MHz mutual aid radio frequencies." But not all county agencies are on the 800 MHz band.

Hesson said he and his regional colleagues are compelled to study radio interoperability on their own. They are "looking at what can be done to plan a regional radio system that can be used by or accessed by all agencies. This planning has been in progress for some time - but it's been heightened by events on the Louisiana Gulf Coast," he said.

For now, proprietary interests impede broad connectivity solutions. The current standard-Project 25-is aimed at ensuring that various models of proprietary protocol equipment mesh.

But Steve Nichols, public safety marketing manager for Thales Communications, maker of portable emergency radios, said that "older proprietary-based signaling protocols" are still being widely used. "Even though the band may be the same, they still can't talk to each other."

Further, Nichols asserted, many electronics firms protect their protocols. They refuse to share technology that might allow competitors and other companies to build compatible equipment. However, he said, the Thales smart radio is "an example of a Project 25 digital radio that permits interoperability with legacy analog VHF systems, though not with older proprietary protocols."

Nichols cites several root causes for the lack of interoperability during 9/11 and Katrina. "All modern radio systems rely on towers and repeater sites. When they go down, you don't have the same range as before," he explained. Hills and buildings taller than transmission towers further thwart communications.

When gas-powered backup generators, which can keep disabled systems going for only two or three days, run out of fuel as they did in New Orleans, "they're down, too." With all power out, towers remaining upright simply cannot operate. "If you don't have the power to repeat that signal, you can't talk." The necessary infrastructure was "swept away," he said. And that can happen again.

Different frequencies were the other great bugbear in New Orleans. "Many of the public safety allocations are in different frequency bands," said Nichols. "That has never been really bridged by a single device like a portable radio that could talk in all those different bands."

The military does better in this respect, Nichols said, typically demanding rugged communications gear that can bridge across multiple bands in a single radio.

Likewise, police using an ultra-high frequency (UHF) system and fire or emergency services using VHF radios could talk to each other. It is likely, Nichols said, that National Guard and Reserve units used such multi-frequency portables during the Katrina cleanup. But at about $7,000 apiece, military radios are too costly for most local law-enforcement agencies.

Certain radio bands are reserved solely for land-based public emergency communications, as Channels 87a and 87b are for maritime use. "In every public safety band, whether it's 800, VHF, or UHF, set-aside mutual aid channels are used for that purpose, within that band," he said. But if two users are trying to hook up with cross-band in those circumstances, both VHF and UHF will fail because they can't operate in the frequency band that the other has.

Thus, Nichols said, the thing that "has not been solved for public safety is the ability to cover multiple frequency bands in a single portable radio." But even then, the radio cannot overcome the total loss of infrastructure in all cases. Proprietary compartmentalization of advanced technology seems the recurring theme.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, caution that interoperable systems are not necessarily the solution in cases such as Katrina. "The issue down in New Orleans was not one of interoperability," said Charles McQueary, head of the science and technology directorate of the Department of Homeland Security. The problem, rather, was one of "operability," he said. "As I understand it, communications towers were taken out. They didn't even have cell phone service. And so in that situation, the issue was needing to bring in emergency telecommunications."

The DHS, he noted, is developing requirements for interoperable wireless communications. "As new equipment is purchased, we can assure [first responders] they will have better interoperability," McQueary said.

He declined to speculate about whether first-responders could ever count on the kind of interoperability that characterizes overseas military deployments. He noted that the real work of restoring day-to-day communications in New Orleans and the Louisiana Gulf fell to common civilian carriers-Verizon, Sprint, and regional equivalents-and he underscored that Katrina has been "a once-in-300-years event."

But critics nevertheless believe that more funds should be allocated in areas such as wider distribution of radios using variants of the military-spec bandwidth (2 MHz to 2Ghz), in order to accommodate the limited 800-MHz most police use for public safety. Other recommend widespread adoption of Project 25 as an industry-driven open standard, as well as more reliance on local citizen-operators' ham radios, which could be programmed to interoperate with multi-mode units.

Several experts recommend more extensive use of voice-over-IP, or VoIP, an Internet and telephone configuration set up piecemeal for evacuees after Katrina.

Rapid deployment of emergency communications could involve more and better satellite communications, inflatable cell towers, cell towers on wheels, high altitude balloons or other mobile facilities, and smart radios to permit "quick and efficient use of limited spectrum," Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin told Congress.

David Aylward, head of first-responder communications group ComCARE, said that DHS managed in only 10 days to establish an Internet-based means for desperate physicians to call in prescriptions to online databases of every national drugstore chain. ND

David C. Walsh is a Washington, DC-based defense and homeland security writer.

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