A PDA in hand ...

Handheld devices, not radios, could be key to emergency communications

Four years ago, New York City's police and firefighters were unable to communicate with one another during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because of incompatible radios. As a result, many of them died and interoperability became a national priority.

But more than two weeks ago, Hurricane Katrina's devastating effects on the Gulf Coast forced first responders and government officials to think about something else: How do you communicate in an area with no infrastructure or power?

"Interoperability isn't the main issue down there; it's operability," said Harlin McEwen, a former police chief in Ithaca, N.Y.

In New Orleans, the hurricane hampered police and fire communications facilities and some radio transmitter sites. Without access to gasoline, propane or natural gas, facilities and transmitters in other areas could not operate. In parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, there simply wasn't any infrastructure to support communications.

Emergency management and communications experts said such a scenario has been imagined, but there's little that can be done if an entire communications infrastructure is wiped out.

Dan Hawkins, director of public safety programs at Search, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics, said the city's 800 MHz radio system experienced a double whammy
after first losing electricity and then a backup system powered by natural gas. The consortium provided technical assistance to New Orleans public safety officials.

It is unusual to lose the primary and backup sources of power during emergencies, Hawkins said.

Local, state and federal emergency responders in the Gulf Coast are using their own self-contained portable radio units with batteries, satellite phones or communications trailers with an array of devices. But the multitude of responding agencies may pose another problem in the area — interoperability among themselves.

"You can provide communications for people in that area, but then trying to link that to other areas becomes a more difficult issue," said Ralph Haller, a retired Federal Communications Commission official who is now a telecommunications consultant.

Jim Lundsted, national frequency coordinator at the Forestry Conservation Communications Association, which helps federal, state and local public safety agencies locate suitable frequencies, said the FCC has done a good job setting aside frequencies for interoperability.

"Candidly, interoperability is far better off than it was on [Sept. 11], but it is still an evolving process," he said. "But with [a] disaster of this magnitude, you just have to be able to plan to program some radios at the scene of the incident."

Kay Goss, a former associate director for national preparedness training and exercises at the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Clinton administration, said she envisions greater use of handheld devices in such situations.

"I think, increasingly, we're probably going to operate out of BlackBerries and [personal digital assistants] to access the tracking systems we have or even the media interface, weather information, field imagery, and rostering of teams and notification systems," Goss said.

Experts say many state and local governments will probably need to review their plans to ensure that communications will be operable — and even interoperable — when disaster strikes. Hawkins said officials from all levels of government will likely do more contingency and continuity of operations planning.

But Haller said preparing for contingencies during a disaster will be difficult.

"It could happen anywhere: an earthquake in California, a tsunami in Oregon, a group of tornadoes in Kansas," he said. "I think the model the public safety community should be prepared for has maybe notched up a couple of steps as a result of this."


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