Natural Disasters Uncover Ongoing Emergency Communications Problems

By Valerie Insinna

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.”

Because no single system is glitch proof, it’s 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 clear view of the sky.

Massachusetts Task Force 1 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.

Although the Red Cross is able to sustain its own communications needs, it works with about 50 partners, mostly non-government organizations without access to the communications infrastructure that first responders or other larger agencies have.  It’s important for the relief organization to develop a plan of action with their partners ahead of time in case commercial networks go down, Kelley said.

Using a portable communications method was critical for the Red Cross because it allowed them to maintain capability even as the organization moved farther into the disaster area, said Justin Luczyk, ViaSat Inc.’s director of government programs and business development of tactical satellite communication networks.

The Red Cross recently launched an emergency preparedness application for smart phones, which saw a spike in downloads before the hurricane hit, Kelley said. But when commercial wireless networks failed, the organization fell back on distributing paper fliers to get the word out.

“In neighborhoods, there are emergency responders going through, house to house, to check on people’s welfare, to give them information by word of mouth, by bullhorn from the street. It gets very primitive, to be honest,” he said.

Bill Wahlig, executive director of the Long Island Forum for Technology, said first responders in Long Beach, N.Y., relied on similar methods.

“Everybody was walking around up and down Long Beach with clipboards. Everything was paper,” he said. “Why can’t first responders or FEMA or emergency responders have electronic devices where they go and they log in, ‘This house is destroyed.’”

This may mean bringing first responder technology up to speed with commercially available smartphones and tablets. “Things like being able to text to 911 for help, they can’t do that today in a uniform way. It’s very spotty if it exists at all,” Hogsett said.

In the future, a nationwide interoperable broadband network may give first responders better capabilities, including increased data throughput and the ability to stream video.

Congress in 2012 passed legislation to create such a network by reallocating a portion of the spectrum called the “D block.”  The legislation appropriates $7 billion for implementation and $135 million in grants for state and local authorities.

The Commerce Department appointed a board of directors to the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which is tasked with building and operating the network. At its first meeting in September, the board began discussing possible applications of the D block, said Hogsett.

The board also laid out a proposed architecture that could be implemented as early as 2013. Rather than constructing an expensive stand-alone network, FirstNet intends to leverage existing U.S. wireless communications infrastructure, including multiple terrestrial and satellite operators.

The board needs to give states a better idea about its plan of action between now and the implementation of the network, Hogsett said. “States are trying to do as much as they can based off the information that we have currently, but there are a lot of unknowns, and there are a lot of things that need to be determined by FirstNet.”

The D block legislation requires consultation between FirstNet and states, but the association is still working out how best to facilitate communication. One possible mechanism is the public safety advisory committee, where NGA will chair a subcommittee on state, territorial, tribal and local government issues, she said.

Despite the nationwide budget crunch, DHS will continue to spend “significant amounts of money” on cultivating first responder technology in the coming years, said Stephen Hancock, DHS science and technology deputy director of research and development.

But even though there is money to fund research and development, local authorities may not be able to afford the latest and most advanced equipment.

In the past, “we’ve looked at the markets and said, ‘Hey, there’s many millions of end users out there. It’s a huge market!’ Okay, that’s potentially a market, but is it a realistic market?” Hancock said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Homeland Security Symposium. “I don’t think we’re good, as a government, at understanding all of the nuances there in the marketplace, and how many of those people are likely to be buying these kinds of things in the next year or two or 10.”

Organizations cannot afford to buy agency-specific equipment, said Bradley Schreiber, vice president of Washington operations for the Applied Science Foundation for Homeland Security, which focuses on connecting industry to first responders.

One challenge, he said, involves re-educating the first responder community to employ standard devices that could be used across many agencies. “What I’m hoping to see are devices with broader platforms that have the ability to be customized for individual agencies rather than having to build new equipment ... for each and every agency.”

Companies have a better opportunity for market infiltration by creating products that address needs at a regional, rather than a local level, Schreiber added.

One way to help put technology from developers into the hands of first responders would be to allow industry a better view of what agencies need.

Such work is already being done at the foundation’s Homeland Security Center in Bethpage, N.Y., where companies and researchers have participated in first responders’ tabletop exercises, said Wahlig.

“There’s nothing better than to have a company representative watch what they do and see where the technology and the communication gaps are. You get a lot of insight,” Wahlig continued. “You can go back and create a lot of good products and better toys for the next Sandy.”

Photo Credit: FEMA

Topics: Homeland Security, Disaster Response, Emergency Communications

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