Missed Signals

Katrina laid bare the sorry state of emergency communications-now what?

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast during the early morning of Aug. 29, telephone and cell phone networks folded like matchsticks. The power grid went down. In New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin and about a dozen staffers retreated from the city's darkened emergency operations center to the downtown Hyatt hotel overlooking the Superdome. About a block away, an airborne shard of glass punctured a backup generator powering the city's emergency communications radio system. Its coolant leaking, the generator switched to battery power, and when the charge ran out, it shut down.

Telephone connection to New Orleans was erratic at best. The BellSouth phone hub at 840 Poydras St. avoided major damage during the hurricane and flooding, company officials say, but vast sections of the land line telephone network went down. The mayor's staff attempted to use satellite phones to stay in touch with the world, but batteries ran out and could not be recharged.

Some calls for emergency help were routed to the state police operations center in Baton Rouge, which is not a dispatch center. At first, state personnel jotted the pleas for help on paper, but soon Sgt. Doug Cain made a database to house the information pouring in.

Meanwhile, inside a conference room at the Hyatt, a member of Nagin's staff made a discovery: He could connect his laptop to the Internet. That connection was Nagin's one outside link for days, The Wall Street Journal reported on Sept. 9.

In Baton Rouge, Cain also found that New Orleans could access the Internet. His team began adding user accounts into their new database. They matched up emergency request locations against electronic maps to identify the neediest areas.

Emergency personnel began streaming into town. By the morning of Friday, Sept. 2, workers restored power to the city's land mobile radio system for police, fire and medical personnel. Still, interoperability remained a major problem. Various Louisiana parishes and the state use different radio frequencies and own different radio technologies. The same is true all over the United States. Emergency personnel in New Orleans ended up in many cases relying on Nextel portable phones sent there by the company's emergency response director, who was camped out at the Baton Rouge fairgrounds. Among the Nextel users were soldiers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, which was dispatched to conduct search and rescue missions.

On Sept. 3, a team led by Ed Minyard from systems integrator Unisys Corp. of Blue Bell, Pa., set up a 110-pound satellite system that blanketed the Hyatt-now the de facto seat of city government-with a wireless Internet network. In the coming days, Minyard's team would fire up another network that would power a restored 911 call center through Voice over Internet Protocol. "It was like being in a combat zone," Minyard recalls.

There are many lessons to be learned from how emergency communications performed, or failed to perform, in the wake of Katrina. The debate is burdened by a weighty status quo, bureaucratic politics, and the inescapable fact that emergency response most often is a local function, divided up among more than 60,000 state, county and city jurisdictions nationwide.

The first subject likely to crop up in any discussion of emergency communication needs is radio spectrum for hand-held devices. Over decades, the Federal Communications Commission opened up radio spectrum for public safety as technology improved and old frequencies were swamped with use. Police, fire and emergency medical departments bought systems calibrated to the new frequencies, but their ability to talk with each other grew ever more fragmented. Today, public safety land mobile radio systems operate on nine different frequency bands, with additional frequency in the 700-MHz range likely to become available once a nationwide switch to digital television is complete. Members of the 9/11 commission chided Congress late last year for not speeding up that process. But no one perfect frequency exists for all emergency communications; firefighters prefer the brick-and-concrete-penetrating abilities of lower frequencies, for example. No single frequency band can meet the public safety demand.

Manufacturers compounded the problem of incompatibility by providing hand-held devices based on proprietary technologies, making it impossible to communicate across systems, even if they operate on the same frequency.

When Nothing's Working

Katrina, however, drives concerns about emergency communications down to an even more basic level. The hard truth is that interoperability is meaningless without intact communications systems. A fair amount of emergency planning simply assumes that communications infrastructure-towers, microwave relays and electric or generator power-will mostly continue to exist and function. And many localities do have disaster-hardened land mobile radio systems. In New Orleans, it was a combination of wind, flooding, power failure and urban lawlessness that took the land mobile system down and kept it down.

Every type of infrastructure has a failure point, and this fact applies even more to emergency communications infrastructure that is owned and operated almost exclusively by financially strapped cities and counties. When bits of infrastructure are knocked out, ad hoc networks should just snap into place, say proponents of Internet protocol communications. They want public safety communications to be plug and play.

"You can't plan for resiliency without addressing the issue of interoperability," says Gerry Wethington, a former chief information officer for Missouri and now a vice president of Unisys. Wethington and others want to institute Internet protocol as the backbone of emergency communications.

Internet Pros and Cons

IP's basic premise is that infrastructure is vulnerable, says Matt Walton, chairman of the Emergency Interoperability Consortium, a pubic-private effort to create public safety data-sharing standards. It was developed by the government to withstand a nuclear attack. Internet protocol converts data, including voice, into discrete packets and spontaneously routes them across a network. That means it doesn't depend on a pre-established pattern to complete the circuit from sender to user. If some network infrastructure elements are disabled, then Internet protocol will route around them. "If you're going to lose everything, the first thing that's going to come back up is the Internet" because of its dynamic routing capability, Walton adds. He points to Katrina as proof of IP's ruggedness. In New Orleans, "the only system that was up for, I think it was the first five days," he says, was the Hyatt's Internet connection. Even in areas where the infrastructure was completely wiped out, the Katrina experience showed that rapidly deployable satellite-powered Internet can plug gaps.

And because data packets don't care about which frequency a voice signal originated from, Internet protocol creates interoperability, its champions say. Hand-held devices still transmit in their specific frequencies back and forth to radio towers, but once signals are converted into packets, they can be delivered to any frequency and any device. Whatever remaining bits of spectrum infrastructure still exist become part of an Internet-based network. Devices not normally included-cell phones or Voice over Internet Protocol-enabled laptops-can become part of it, too.

"When you're using Internet protocol, you don't replace all of the end user devices; you use exactly what you have today," Wethington says.

Of course, the Hyatt connection may have been a fluke. Some neighboring parishes had no connection to the Internet during and after the storm. And satellite connections covered only small areas, a far cry from the citywide coverage emergency communications require. "Historically, we know that [Internet] infrastructure is what tends to collapse first in a major emergency," says David Boyd, head of Safecom, a Homeland Security program dedicated to public safety interoperability.

Embedding Internet protocol into emergency communications means relying on commercial infrastructure, unless first responder jurisdictions lay their own fiber, which likely would be cost-prohibitive. The commercial network is not secure enough, Boyd argues. The private sector doesn't have a financial incentive to build the kind of redundancy emergency responders need if the connection is to survive the worst of disasters-exactly when communications is needed most.

And even assuming that connectivity does survive during an emergency, Boyd says, commercial providers haven't been willing to guarantee first responders priority for their network traffic. "You wind up having to compete with tens of thousands of other signals that are trying to get on that line in an emergency," he says.

First responders "are used to 'We're the government . . . and we better be responsible for our own stuff because we can't trust the [commercial providers] of the world,' " says a Washington-area public safety official, speaking on background.

Converting radio frequency to packets doesn't happen for free. Local first responder equipment often verges on obsolete due to underfunding. A 2004 survey of 192 cities by the U. S. Conference of Mayors found that 89 percent of those cities said limited local funding was their largest obstacle to communications interoperability. "A lot of fire departments are volunteers. They have bake sales and car washes to buy radios," says a federal official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of departmental policy.

Finally, smaller jurisdictions often lack any form of emergency communications backbone, according to Boyd. They rely on point-to-point connections between first responders rather than a network.

Some of the resistance to using Internet protocol is cultural, Wethington says. "We're asking them not only to change the technology and think differently about that, we're asking them to change the entire governance model that they have used for the past 35 years," he says.

Going Commercial

Some first responders are finding their way onto commercial networks anyway. When a regional partnership between Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia began creating a wireless broadband tool for police queries and incident management, its makers didn't even consider depending on spectrum allocated for land mobile radio. Officials behind the Capital Wireless Integrated Network (CapWIN) say they don't care how users connect to their Web-based application, but they know there's not enough bandwidth on public safety channels to handle broadband. Participating public safety agencies, which include the Maryland and Virginia state police, connect through commercial providers. Maryland State Police, for example, use Cingular.

Users of CapWIN know they can always switch back to information delivered verbally by radio dispatchers. But, "The fact is, people come to rely on it and when it's not there, it makes their life very difficult," says Bruce Barney, director of technical operations for CapWIN. "We treat the system as mission critical."

There's no way to make CapWIN work on the spectrum currently dedicated for public safety, program officials say. If first responders want Internet protocol in their vehicles, for now, they'll have to rely on commercial wireless services.

"You start to question whether or not they'd be better off lobbying . . . with the consumer providers to say, 'Look, give us a service level agreement, give us guaranteed bandwidth, give us priority,' " Barney adds.

First responders aren't blind to the advantages of Internet protocol, especially when it is extended to the hand-held level, not just the backbone. Craig Jorgensen, project director for Project 25, a public-private standards-making body for land mobile radios, imagines a world in which first responders have access to Internet-transmitted video, data from field sensors, "the ability to send robotic terminals into a building and assess what's taking place . . . without having to send people in."

But, even though the technology already exists to do all that, costs are prohibitive as long as funding remains uncoordinated among tens of thousands of local jurisdictions. In the future, first responders likely will end up relying on Internet protocol, "but what are we going to do now, today, this year, this week?" Boyd asks.

Short on Funds and Vision

The first responder community has a hard time formulating its vision for the future and translating that vision into requirements, Jorgensen says. Safecom, created in late 2001, is meant to address that shortcoming, but the initiative has suffered from low budgets and bureaucratic opposition. "It's not very well funded, but it's limping along," says Alan Caldwell, director of government relations for the International Association of Fire Chiefs and a member of Safecom's advisory executive board. The program "is the only bright spot in the entire federal government for dealing with interoperability," he adds.

Multiple management teams assumed control during Safecom's first two years and other federal agencies have been reluctant to meet their funding obligations to the program.

"Some of the governance process unraveled," says Mark Forman, former Office of Management and Budget administrator for e-government and information technology. "At the same time, there were a number of communities that started very strong lobbying efforts" to keep the focus on land mobile radio and spectrum, he adds. "People wanted to argue about bandwidth considerations, the spectrum issue, without taking into account what the people in the field actually need to interoperate."

Spectrum is where the discussion should end, not begin, Forman says. The first responder community must determine how much data and interoperability it needs. "Before we get to say how much is enough, we need to do more work on our side to be able to define exactly what we're going to do with it and how we're going to use it," Jorgensen says.

For now, technology is leaping ahead faster than first responders' ability to keep pace. They are deeply fragmented by jurisdictional lines. They tend to be cautious and conservative in adopting new technology and their existing equipment works fine in most situations. The biggest hurdle to improving emergency communications could be convincing first responders to cooperate and figure out their true needs so they can take full advantage of the possibilities created by Internet protocol.

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