FEMA gets Hurricane Katrina help from unlikely place

National Interagency Fire Center

When the Federal Emergency Management Agency needs radios and frequencies to support its response to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, now battering the Gulf Coast, it turns to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho. At first glance, that might seem like an odd choice.

But Steve Jenkins, chief of NIFC’s National Interagency Incident Communications Division, said the center controls nationwide frequencies routinely used by FEMA in disaster management and can supply literally thousands of radios to disaster response teams when needed. The center is jointly staffed by the Forest Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service.

Those radios and frequencies are ordinarily used to support firefighting operations, but NIFC has a long history of supporting FEMA, Jenkins said.

On Aug. 29, Jenkins said FEMA had already requested frequencies in the 162-174 MHz and 406-420 MHz bands for use by urban disaster teams ready to move into areas hit by Katrina.

NIFC also has what Jenkins describes as the world’s largest storehouse of low-power handheld radios -- some 8,000 along with repeaters and satellite communications terminals. They can be requested from depots around the country, including one in London, Ky., the closest radio cache to the Gulf Coast.

J.P. Greene, manager of the Southern Area Coordination Center in Atlanta, said his center has received radios from Kentucky and started to mobilize teams to provide support for FEMA.

Radios supplied to FEMA are standard push-to-talk handhelds from EFJohnson and Icom America, much like those used by police and urban fire departments except they operate in frequency bands assigned to the Forest Service and Interior Department agencies such as BLM.

The NIFC radios can provide wide coverage in an urban area through the use of repeaters that extend signal ranges, Jenkins said. The center can also supply FEMA with ground-to-air radio systems -– ordinarily used to manage fire bombers and helicopters –- to help direct air traffic at a makeshift heliport, he added.

NIFC communications gear has been dispatched to assist with post-disaster operations after previous hurricanes and in the wake of the World Trade Center bombings in 2001. And the center supplied more than 900 radios to help teams working to recover debris from the crash of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. “That was our largest nonfire operation,” Jenkins said.

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