- By Brian Robinson
- Mar 29, 1998
The day before the Federal Emergency Management Agency's quick-responseteam rolled into town, the swollen Red River crept over a dike and turnedGrand Forks, N.D., and its sister city, East Grand Forks, Minn., into a3-foot-deep lake. FEMA's Mobile Emergency Response Support (MERS) team couldn'tstop the damage that the flooded river would exact on the towns. But theteam could help residents pick up the pieces, and for many of the residents,it seemed that pieces were all that remained. Property damage reached $1billion. In East Grand Forks, all but 27 homes were inundated. In GrandForks, water damaged 11,000 homes and businesses. And on the afternoon ofApril 19, 1997, as the MERS team arrived, a fire broke out in the SecurityBuilding in downtown Grand Forks. By the next day, as a national TV audiencewatched, 11 buildings and three city blocks were wiped out.
It was a scenario tailor-made for MERS, a combination of high-tech communications,power generators, heating and air conditioning units, portable offices,pharmacy, grocery store and toilet-paper dispensary housed in a convoy oflarge vehicles. A MERS unit is a self-reliant outfit of emergency-responsespecialists that can support dozens of people for several weeks.
The sight of the formidable array of technology and supplies that the vehiclescarry prompted an unlikely reaction from Capt. Ron McCarthy, a member ofthe Grand Forks police force. Instead of being awed by the "Red October"command truck sent by the Texas detachment, McCarthy exclaimed, "It haspadded chairs!" McCarthy had spent the previous few days hunched on a foldingcard table chair after being flooded out of his headquarters office, andthe MERS mobile command center promised some welcome relief. "In that situation,"he said soberly, "you don't know what a big deal that can be."
Up and Running in an Hour
MERS was conceived in the mid-1980s. By then, it had become obviousto FEMA that immediate communications are vital to the success of any disaster-recoveryprogram. Not knowing the true extent of a disaster as quickly as possibleslows aid to victims, thereby compounding any problems produced by the disasteritself. MERS is intended as the first-strike team in situations where regularFEMA aid cannot be established quickly.
"The sole intent is for MERS to set up a facility independent of theinfrastructure within the disaster area," according to Clay Hollister, FEMA'sdirector of information resources management. "The agency has its own 24-hoursatellite service, provides its own PCs and so on. It has its own data network,and MERS is the mobile extension of that."
The MERS vehicles were built by Harris Corp. under a contract awardedin the early 1980s. The first vehicles were shipped to Texas in 1985. MERSincludes five detachments located in Maynard, Mass.; Thomasville, Ga.; Denton,Texas; Denver; and Bothell, Wash. These detachments support FEMA's 10 operationalregions.
The detachments are identical in terms of the equipment they carry andthe personnel who man them. They are meant to be completely self-sustainingfor a number of weeks, and they arrive at a disaster site in a convoy oftrucks that is either driven in or flown in on large transport aircraft.
Each detachment maintains a fleet of about 70 vehicles that includecommunications trucks, power- and general-supply trucks, portable officesand water and diesel carriers. However, only a fraction of these vehiclesare sent to any one disaster, being mixed and matched according to the natureand needs of the emergency. In this way, one MERS detachment can simultaneouslysupport several emergencies.
Every one of the 40-plus people in each detachment is required to havea commercial driver's license that enables them to drive any vehicle inthe mix. More important than the driving credentials of the MERS staff istheir technical expertise. Each is an expert in a particular informationtechnology or engineering field, but the staff also is cross-trained inother disciplines so that each person can meet the various emergency needsas they arise. And given the conditions that the staff often has to overcome,it goes without saying that high morale is a large factor in any MERS unit.
"I can honestly say that I have never worked with a more dedicated ormotivated group of people," said John White, who heads the Bothell MERSdetachment. Most of the people in the detachments are from the militaryand are used to working as a close-knit group under trying circumstances.When MERS was first formed, military people were the only ones availablewith experience in mobile communications, White explained.
"I think MERS was, at that time, a four-letter word among some NationalGuard reserve units," White said. "We pretty much cleaned them out."
Typically, a MERS team will go into a disaster area and be up and runningin as little as an hour. The team then works with regular FEMA staff toset up a more permanent disaster field office. Once that is in place, theMERS team packs up and leaves, waiting for the next emergency.
Hurricane Andrew Offers Test
MERS was first used during Hurricane Hugo, which ravaged the East Coastin 1989. But MERS' first big test came in August 1992, when Hurricane Andrewflattened a large area of southern Florida and was the most costly naturaldisaster ever to strike the United States. Hurricane Andrew wreaked $27billion in damages and resulted in 58 deaths. For Jim Loomis, the disaster-recoveryadministrator for the state of Florida, MERS made the difference betweena bad situation and a truly horrendous one.
"Andrew was a very large disaster that came along at a time when FEMAand the state were not prepared to handle it," Loomis said. "MERS was oneof only a very few successful parts of that whole disaster."
MERS' effectiveness was evident in places such as Florida City, Fla.,Loomis said, where communications had been completely wiped out. The stateset up a base at the city hall using MERS, which was the only communicationsand power source there for several days.
To Frank Koutnik, the director of Florida's Office of Policy and Planning,one of the biggest advantages to MERS was its ability to set up a large,PBX-type switchboard. Immediately after Hurricane Andrew, only cellularcommunications were available, at least in those places where the cell towerswere still standing. Even so, the towers only had backup batteries for halfa day. One by one they failed, and with them went the remaining communications.
MERS went to the devastated community of Homestead, Fla., to providecommunications there as well. A microwave relay was set up and somehow —"I'm still not sure how," Koutnik said — MERS managed to link up with thelocal Bell telephone company to provide communications to the community.MERS also provided satellite communications to the outside world — somethingthat was vital for the disaster field office that the state set up to managethe emergency.
"My gosh, without them we really would have been hurting," Koutnik said."We had our own emergency communications vehicles, but against MERS it wouldbe like comparing a Radio Shack walkie-talkie with a satellite truck."
Aiding Grand Forks Evacuees
The situation in North Dakota was a little different. In Florida, manycivilians were still left in the devastated areas once Hurricane Andrewhad passed through, and the goal was to get communications up and runningto organize aid. By the time MERS arrived in Grand Forks, a mandatory evacuationorder had cleared the town of all its 50,000 citizens, spreading them acrossthe United States and to three different countries in what was the biggestcivilian evacuation since the Civil War. New Hampshire was the only statethat did not host a Grand Forks resident.
But that posed its own problem: How would Grand Forks officials letresidents know how things were going in the town and when it would be safefor them to return?
"For me, it was a tremendous learning experience," said Lt. Byron Sieber,the administrative resources manager with the Grand Forks Police Departmentand the primary public information officer during the disaster. "I'm usedto dealing with the locals and situations such as homicides, but this wasa global situation. We eventually had some 700 media people here, and wehad to react live to requests from CNN, the "Today" show, etc. And thenwe had to get regular notices out on health, drinking water and so on."
Sieber, along with other Grand Forks officials, tried to handle thesituation from the regular emergency operations center in a cramped roomin the basement of the police headquarters. That became impossible on theFriday when the Red River came over the dike. Sieber was one of the lastpeople to leave the building. "We packed things in cars and drove away asthe flood waters were lapping against the tires," he said.
Although equipment varies in the MERS detachments, most include the following:
* A Multi-Radio Van containing KU-band satellite equipment that provides48 telephone lines and video feeds for two-way teleconferencing and fullbroadcast TV transmission. The MRV also provides long-distance, high-frequencyradio; local- and intermediate-range UHF/VHF radio; and integrated radioand wire communication.
* Line-of-sight radio, including transmitters and portable antennas,that allows 21 phone circuits for data, voice or fax. These radios alsocan provide for telephone service over a range of up to 56 miles.
* Long-distance, high-frequency radios from RF Communications that providefour voice circuits and four data circuits.
* International Mobile Satellite Organization communications that provideone phone circuit for worldwide voice, data and fax service.
* Telephone switches, including an IDNX-90 integrated digital networkexchange, Redcom phone switches that can provide 48 circuits, and expandedMerlin switches that provide 48 circuits over two T-1 lines.
* Assorted standard computer and peripheral equipment, such as printersand faxes.
* Standard off-the-shelf software
For the next three weeks, the 65-foot-long Red October truck (which is actuallywhite — the nickname comes from the Tom Clancy submarine novel) became thecenter of the emergency operations. It can be raised on hydraulic liftsand expanded to a width of 24 feet. It includes a large conference tableand an assortment of phones, computers, TV screens and hookups to varioussatellite and radio communications. It worked alongside the regular MERSMulti-Radio Van to provide officials with a link to the outside world andto the various emergency agencies and National Guard units operating inthe town.
"Suddenly, we were in charge of this big media event," said Lt. DennisEggebraaten, who works in the investigations bureau in the Grand Forks PoliceDepartment and who, along with Sieber, acted as a public information officerduring the flood. "We were just a couple of cops. I can't say enough aboutthose [MERS officials]; they really saved our asses."
For Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens, who coordinated the local responseto the emergency and negotiated the political deals for relief with thegovernor's office and the state's congressional delegation, Red Octoberwas an island of calm amid all the outside chaos.
"We couldn't have done the job we did without MERS," she said. "We hadto move a complete group of local, state and federal agencies and give thema focus from which to do their work. What MERS did was to give us a placeto share concerns without having the press there, and where we could openup. The setup provided us with a lot of technology we would otherwise nothave had. Plus, we had all the people with all of the answers in one place."
FEMA officials think the Grand Forks operation was an obvious success.Owens is now on a nine-member FEMA Visitors Board that meets several timesa year to dispense advice and experience on how to deal with such majordisasters.
Bright Future for MERS
MERS' reputation is strong enough that Congress appropriated $5 millionfor upgrades to the vehicles this year. Steven Levinsohn, the director ofthe Mobile Operations Division in FEMA's Response and Recovery Directorate,said he expects lawmakers to make a yearly appropriation for upgrades.
"The commercial side of this [communications] business is moving evenfurther ahead, so we need to be able to keep pace," he said. "I don't believeanyone can be truly state-of-the-art, but at the very least, we want tostay current on these things."
The enhancements will allow MERS to accommodate narrowband transmissionon land mobile radios and will improve MERS' support for line-of-sight andhigh-frequency radio. Support for wireless local-area networks and cellularsystems also will be improved, Levinsohn said.
"We will be looking to wireless systems to provide the quick supportthat's needed once we get into a disaster area," Levinsohn said. "Then wecan take the time to think a little longer than we have been able to inthe past about the longer-term solution to providing support."
-- Robinson is a free-lance writer based in Portland, Ore.