Radio upkeep is no small task in New Orleans

Since Hurricane Katrina hit Aug. 29, New Orleans public safety officials and technicians from M/A-COM, which installed the city's 800 MHz first responder radio system, have been continuously repairing and maintaining tower sites, supplying fuel for generators and even sleeping near the systems to make sure nothing goes wrong.

'The largest problem we have is the fact that it's unusual to run on emergency power for weeks,' John Facella, the company's director of public safety markets, said today.

'Normally what happens is you have standby generators and you have batteries to back them up at all the major sites and we had that,' he said. 'But what's happening here is that we have a major logistics problem of fueling the generators that probably have tanks that last a day or two. We have to fuel those generators for weeks instead of days.'

That was especially problematic in a city that was mostly flooded and without power, said Facella, who has been a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician in Massachusetts for about 20 years.

Emergency responders and the company's technicians had to place second generators at three of its major radio tower sites in the city.

'I don't know of any public safety system that has two sets of generators at each site because the cost is enormous,' he said.

Via helicopter, one was placed on the rooftop of the Energy Centre office building, which houses the radio system's main control room on the 34th floor. At that downtown site, the main generator uses natural gas, while the second one uses diesel fuel.

To ensure the second generator would operate for at least 10 days, some diesel fuel was delivered by air, but workers also had to lug up about 60, five-gallon tanks filled with diesel up 40 flights because the building didn't have any power, Facella said. Technicians are also alternately powering one up while taking the other offline to perform preventive maintenance.

At the main police dispatch center at another site, workers tried to use a helicopter to drop a second generator near a 250-foot antenna tower, which sits on top of the police parking garage. But Facella said there was a danger that the generator might strike the tower as it was being lowered from the helicopter.

Instead, workers decided to use a crane. However they had to wait until the five feet of water in the parking lot abated to a certain level. Finally the crane was able to lift the two-ton generator into the parking garage, but it was about 100 feet away from the desired site. That's when they used a forklift truck to get generator situated.

Most generators are not designed to run continuously for weeks on end, but technicians have had to continually maintain them. They have had to also endure unpleasant conditions ' such as sleeping without cots or air conditioners on the 34th floor ' while performing maintenance. Air conditioners were eventually rigged up to draw heat away from the radio equipment room. Water and food had to be lugged up 34 flights of stairs since the building itself didn't have any power until Sept. 19, he said.

Facella said the problems they've encountered have been about logistics. He said the radio system has always worked extremely well. 'In fact, I would say there apparently were no failures of the electronics,' he said. 'It's all been all about power.'

New Orleans' 800 MHz radio system provides communications for the city's police, fire and emergency medical service (EMS) personnel. The system went down after debris from the hurricane struck the radiator of the main generator on top of the Energy Centre. Backup battery power lasted about 10 hours more.

M/A-COM technicians were prevented from entering the city even though they had credentials. If they were able to get in sooner, they could have taken several hours to repair the generator, Facella said. Instead the company's technicians fixed the generator until Sept. 1, the Thursday after Katrina hit.

Even though the main system went down, Facella said there were a couple of repeater stations that provided first responders with two basic communications channels from Oct. 29 to Sept. 1. He characterized the channels as 'party lines,' meaning police, fire and EMS all had access to those channels at the same time. After the system was restored, Sept. 1, the city's radio system had 23 channels available.

However, interoperability was a problem. With public safety personnel from around the country pouring in to New Orleans to help, many had their own communications systems which were incompatible with the 800 MHz system. Facella said the company provided the city with additional portable radios to hand out to others who needed to get on the system. Otherwise, they could use cell phones, which have improved steadily.

But just last week, the system's reserved communications capacity was activated ' which allowed most radios to be reprogrammed to work on the 800 MHz system -- after the police headquarters tower site was repaired, he added.

City officials are also trying to establish more permanent emergency 911 dispatch centers in a couple of hotels near the Superdome and French Quarter. Facella said they are trying to provide console functionality at those locations.

Facella said everyone in New Orleans and elsewhere will be rethinking the survivability of their communications systems and infrastructure and interoperability. M/A-COM officials have learned another less and that is it needs better credentials since their technicians were initially barred from entering the city to fix the system.

'It's an intriguing lesson in who's in charge,' he said.

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