MERS Mobile Emergency Operations Vehicle at Disaster Site (FEMA)

FEMA delivers mobile communications for Harvey

As part of its response to Hurricane Harvey, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent almost a dozen mobile communications vehicles to the Texas coast.

FEMA's Mobile Emergency Response Support (MERS) program  provides on-site management of disaster response activities, supplying power generation, mobile telecommunications, logistics, operational and life support.

The self-contained Mobile Emergency Operations Vehicles have power generation and satellite communications capabilities and are initially deployed to provide mobile office support, including videoconferencing, at locations that lack infrastructure.

According to FEMA, the units vary in size and provide support and location for a command post, initial operating facility or joint field office.

The flooding disaster unfolding in Houston and along the Gulf Coast is the kind of massive event that the planned FirstNet nationwide interoperable wireless network for first responders could help address.

However, even when FirstNet is fully deployed, it will not supplant the survivable, mobile capabilities that FEMA brings, said Ken Rehbehn, principal analyst at Critical Communications Insights.

"No network infrastructure is completely survivable," he said, adding that the communications networks in the stricken area have been remarkably resilient -- "a lesson from [Superstorm] Sandy," which taught telecom carriers to more fully protect their networks from flooding.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, the heaviest damage to wireless carrier infrastructure has been concentrated in the bull's-eye for the strongest winds where Hurricane Harvey first made landfall. According to an Aug. 27 FCC report, 4.1 percent of cellular communication sites were down in the 55 counties stretching along the Gulf Coast from the easternmost tip of Louisiana to the southernmost tip of Texas.

Rehbehn said that once FirstNet is fully deployed, the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA will take advantage of the network in disaster zones. However, he added that they will not be able to rely on FirstNet for service in every situation. Satellite capabilities are important in recently stricken areas or remote areas without immediate access to infrastructure, he said.

AT&T was contracted to construct FirstNet's interoperable LTE-based wireless network. Rehbehn said the company is also putting together mobile communications vehicles, such as "satellite-on-wheels" and "cells-on-wheels," but in a big disaster such as Hurricane Harvey, there are never enough to go around.

Sixteen states have opted into FirstNet's plans. Texas officials, however, have not decided yet.

Harris County, which includes hard-hit Houston, was an early adopter of the Band 14 LTE capabilities FirstNet will harness.

Houston-area first responders used the technology during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in February. A report on the test, issued in June, said it was "the first large‐scale special event to incorporate the use of mobile apps to support public safety communications from the very beginning of the planning process as key operational tools."

Almost 1,000 public safety personnel from 10 state, federal and local agencies were trained to use the technology, according to the report.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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