Communications breakdown

First responders look for new ways to keep communications flowing in emergencies

When listing the casualties associated with Hurricane Katrina, don't forget to add reliable and interoperable communications. As emergency response teams rushed to the Gulf Coast, most struggled with the near total breakdown of traditional landline and cellular phone service. Even worse, incompatible mobile radio systems couldn't bridge communications among the various local, state and federal authorities responding to the crisis.

Were first responders surprised by how quickly and extensively communication systems broke down, even though the Homeland Security Department has issued grants worth about $11 billion to bolster communications?

"We see this over and over again," said Scott Seaton, executive director of the Engineering and Systems Division at SRI International. "It's a pervasive problem in the public sector because of a total reliance on the terrestrial infrastructure and the lack of interoperability among communications equipment used by individual agencies."

Katrina quickly brought terrestrial communications equipment to its knees with a one-two punch of winds and floods, which felled wires and knocked out service to an estimated 3 million phone lines and 1,000 cellular towers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. When BellSouth's central offices in Louisiana flooded, 911 service to surrounding parishes died. Wind and rain damage also cut electricity necessary for running communication systems, and emergency generators failed after wind-blown debris hit them.

In the aftermath, communications from incompatible radio systems hampered the work of emergency crews and law enforcement officials. "In many areas, the lack of adherence to standards for public safety radios means a fireman can't talk to a policeman and the policeman can't talk to a paramedic," said Willis Carter, chief of communications at the Shreveport, La., Fire Department, which sent crews to aid New Orleans search and rescue operations. Carter is also first vice president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.

Technologies that worked

Extensive post-Katrina analysis is directing attention once again to creating more efficient communications strategies and highlighting new technologies that use a multilayered approach to keep first responders in touch with one another.

To better promote the adoption of interoperability standards for radio systems, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Project Safecom, part of DHS, created the P25 Conformity Assessment Program. The compatibility testing framework will validate how well commercial radio systems conform to Project 25, a suite of standards aimed at making radios interoperable.

The P25 suite attempts to describe eight interfaces for various radio systems. However, because the definitions remain ill- defined, manufacturers are free to create their own proprietary variations, which spawn incompatible systems. The new assessment program is developing testing protocols for use by independent accreditation labs that will eventually create a preferred list of products that score high for broad compatibility.

"The first thing [emergency responders] need is to know that existing capabilities are going to lead them to greater interoperability," said Ron Miller, senior principal at SRA International. Before moving to the private sector, Miller helped develop DHS' information technology architecture and worked as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's chief information officer. "The list is a good start," Miller said.

Meanwhile, a growing number of state, local and federal jurisdictions are turning to interconnection devices that bridge two-way radio communications with incompatible handsets and landline and cellular phones.

Some examples include Communications-Applied Technology's Incident Commanders' Radio Interface device, Aegis Assessments' SafetyNet Radio Bridge and Raytheon JPS Communications' ACU-1000. Vendors also offer portable versions for trucking into emergency locations to blend communications among first responders from a variety of jurisdictions.

The U.S. Coast Guard uses a portable version of the ACU-1000 in a mobile communications unit it calls the Transportable Communications Center (TCC), which can travel inside a tractor-trailer or, in the case of Katrina relief efforts, inside a C-130 cargo plane. The TCC provides VHF radio, UHF capabilities and Military Satellite Communications systems.

"We can duplicate the communications capability of any of our command centers," said Capt. Bob Day, chief of the Pacific Area's Communications, Command and Control Division at the Coast Guard, based in Alameda, Calif. His division established a mobile command center in Louisiana in Katrina's aftermath.

"I can program this device so that a Coast Guardsman can transmit on channel 81 in a marine band, and we can translate that to some other frequency to work with local and state police responders," he said. "That's useful particularly when we're trying to bring various different groups into the fold that all have different radio systems."

Other options

Expanded IP networks, including voice over IP, are other candidates for better communications reliability. Because of their ubiquity, IP-based public and private networks provide a level of resiliency for voice and data communications that exceeds standard point-to-point communications networks. Networking vendors, such as Cisco Systems, offer commercial products that use IP for first responder communications.

Cisco's IP Interoperability and Communications System adds a special router to first responder networks that can turn analog voice signals from radio handsets into IP data packets. Cisco said the router facilitates interoperability among radios that use proprietary and open communications standards. The radios can also communicate with other devices connected to the IP network, including laptop and desktop PCs, IP phones and handheld computers.

First responders can switch to different frequencies, and the router mixes the various frequencies together at an IP layer. One benefit is "first responders use the radio handsets they've been using all along," said Dean Zanone, a customer solutions manager at Cisco's Safety and Security Systems Division and former officer in the Seal Beach, Calif., Police Department.

The Coast Guard uses similar technology for what it calls the voice-over-IP Cube, a component of its mobile command center.

"The cube allows us to distribute voice over IP from terrestrial phone lines or through satellites," Day said. The Coast Guard then distributes voice-over-IP handsets to on-site emergency workers. "This technology provides dial tone as well as Internet connectivity to each handset. So we can come into a location, drop these phones on a command center and support whatever contingency plan they're setting up."

Day estimated that the voice-over-IP Cube represents about $150,000 worth of technology, not including the satellite equipment.

A company called PacketHop offers another take on the ad hoc network theme. Its communication system uses a mesh networking protocol to connect Wi-Fi devices without the need for functioning access points or communication servers. The resulting network is IP-based and lets users connect via PCs and personal digital assistants. The company's accompanying software application, which is for public safety officials, also provides instant messaging, multicast video and Global Positioning System capabilities.

The mesh technology can "turn every communications node into a repeater so the network is self-forming and it doesn't rely on terrestrial infrastructure," Seaton said.

"The network is self-forming enough that as other terrestrial infrastructure becomes available, it will take advantage of it," he said. "So if you have some backup communications, you can utilize them. If you have none at all, the local teams of responders can still communicate with one another."

Seaton said PacketHop, a start-up company in which SRI has invested, began shipping commercially at the end of the summer. No public-sector groups have adopted the company's technology yet, but it was part of a successful homeland security exercise in 2004 at San Francisco's Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a park secured by a mix of city, county and federal agencies.

On the Gulf Coast, when Katrina plowed through a Northrop Grumman shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., and one near New Orleans, the military contractor relied on IP-based communications facilitated by satellite communications.

"The local carrier was able to get the Mississippi facility back relatively quickly, within a day or two, but the Louisiana shipyard required us to bring in satellite communications," said Keith Glennan, vice president and chief technology officer at Northrop Grumman.

To do that, the company hauled in its "network in a box," a unit similar to the Coast Guard's TCC, which offers core communications equipment to re-establish network communications. It consists of commercial routers and network hubs assembled by Northrop Grumman and provides voice-over-IP services via low-orbiting satellite services.

"We basically plug the router into the satellite antenna, and we're able to get the network running on the satellite," Glennan said. "We were then able to patch in voice-over-IP phones."

The Alabama Emergency Management Agency also uses satellite phones as part of its communications mix. Satellites are important not only to re-establish voice links when landline systems fail but also as an efficient way to distribute large data files, such as maps.

"We've got baseline aerial imagery data for our coastal counties," said Bruce Baughman, director of the agency and president of the National Emergency Management Association. After a storm makes landfall, the agency overlays new imagery from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency onto the baseline data.

"We can immediately tell what's been destroyed and where the damage is," Baughman said.

Reality check

Although interoperable radio systems, expanded IP use, mesh networks and satellite communications promise attractive backup services for traditional communications, the new solutions carry hefty price tags for cash-strapped agencies.

For example, Carter estimates that firmware updates for the Shreveport Fire Department's current radios would cost about $350 per handset. If the department sought interoperability with the Louisiana State Police, Carter would have to pay another $300 per unit in registration fees. A maintenance fee of about $15 a month brings the total overhaul cost to more than $800 per handset.

Raytheon JPS officials estimate that equipping the largest 200 cities with ACU-1000 technology could cost as much as $75 million, assuming individual cities bought 15 of the devices at $25,000 each for interoperable coverage.

Satellite communications doesn't fare much better in the cost equation, Glennan said. "We are absolutely going to keep those satellite phones for continuity of operations going forward. But because the expense is so high, they're not a viable alternative to ground-based connectivity, except when you don't have anything else, at which point, they look really good."

With the right mix of traditional and cutting-edge solutions, reliable communications could eventually be spared from future casualty lists.

Joch is a business and technology writer based in New England. He can be reached at ajoch@monad.net.

First responder communications

What worked:

  • Interconnection devices that bridge two-way radio communications with incompatible handsets, and landline and wireless phones.
  • Portable communications gear that uses voice-over-IP technology to send voice over data networks, including satellite links.
  • Paging and two-way messaging that sometimes helped emergency response teams communicate when voice systems failed.

What fell short:

  • Communications networks that relied on fixed terrestrial infrastructures, such as telephone lines and cell towers, which were knocked out.
  • Incompatible mobile radio systems that couldn't bridge communications among local, state and federal authorities.

Other tips for staying in touch

In addition to solving incompatibility problems and finding new ways to bridge communication networks, Hurricane Katrina relief efforts taught first responders to tap a variety of other short- and long-term solutions.

  • Make proactive service-level agreements. Cellular phone service providers maintain fleets of cell-on-wheels vans that bring emergency or augmented service into local areas. But few jurisdictions have formal arrangements with service providers to make sure the vans arrive quickly at a disaster scene, said Dave Rensin, president and chief executive officer of Reality Mobile, a consulting firm. "Put out bids to the cellular companies for prestaged first responder networks," he said. "So when a hurricane is coming, providers prestage mobile cellular base stations, and you can quickly hand out cell phones to first responders."
  • Use text messaging and paging. Cell phone-based text messaging sometimes worked in New Orleans when voice calls failed, said Willis Carter, chief of communications for the Shreveport, La., Fire Department. Text messages require less network bandwidth than voice.

    Paging and two-way messaging also helped emergency response teams communicate when voice systems failed. Ambulance personnel had difficulty telling hospital staff when to expect incoming patients, said Bruce Deer, president of paging service provider SkyTel. Short text messages provided essential information for coordinating schedules, he said.
  • Fall back on e-mail. Capt. Bob Day, chief of the Communications, Command and Control Division of the Coast Guard's Pacific Area, advises emergency management agencies to establish a few dozen user accounts on free Web-based e-mail services, such as Yahoo. "If we lose our e-mail servers, people would know to log in using one of these names so we can use the public Internet backbone to communicate until we get ourselves back up," he said.
  • Go underground. Burying phone and power lines will help keep communications flowing in vulnerable areas. "This represents a huge expense, but so were the hurricane building codes [enacted] after Andrew, which probably prevented damage in Florida," said Ron Miller, senior principal at SRA International. "We need to take the same hard look at the power infrastructure and see what we can do to harden it."

-- Alan Joch

Where to look for funding help

As first responder outfits evaluate their current gear to decide if and when to adopt maturing technology alternatives, they might be able to augment funding with federal grants earmarked for communication systems.

Here are two important sites to help start the process:

  • Grants.gov (www.grants.gov) provides one-stop shopping for grants from all federal agencies.
  • Safecom (www.safecomprogram.gov/SAFECOM) offers grants that enable public-sector organizations to buy communications equipment.

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