911 wiped out in many areas

Urban and search rescue teams from neighboring states are finding that some areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina lack any communications infrastructure and coordinated command and control efforts.

Barry Luke, division fire chief with Orange County (Fla.) Fire Rescue, said about 80 to 90 firefighters, paramedics, building engineers, technicians and others, from central Florida have been deployed in the Mississippi cities of Gulfport and Pascagoula and surrounding areas searching for survivors. Teams from Jacksonville and Tampa have also been deployed following a formal request by Mississippi state government and federal officials.

But Luke said communications among the teams is sorely lacking, which is hampering effective rescue efforts.

“What we’re finding in the rural coastal communities is that there is no ability to pick up the phone and dial 911,” he said Thursday. “There is no ability for the public to call for help. There is no local communication system that is organizing police and fire and the mutual aid units rolling in are [only] able to talk among themselves.

His crews are using 800 MHz portable radios “on direct,” meaning they can talk from unit to unit without repeaters to a maximum distance of 1 to 1.5 miles.

Additionally, they have three satellite phones. Essentially he said the crews are conducting their operations blindly, unaware of other federal and state search and rescue teams in their vicinity, the location of critical facilities, such as hospitals, and even whether they are operating.

Typically after a disaster, he said local authorities monitor requests for help, organize the rescue effort and deploy teams in an effective manner. In this case, there’s no effective organization in place because the communities are “basically wiped out,” he said.

“Earlier today we found three people who were trapped or alive," Luke said, who was in Florida but receiving constant reports from his crews about the situation in Mississippi. "Those people were rescued and put in the back of an Orange County ambulance."

“Now what does the ambulance do? Where do they go?" he said. "We don’t know Gulfport, Miss. We don’t know where the closest hospital is. We don’t know if that hospital has electricity, if it’s operating. There is no radio to ask anyone that question, and there’s certainly no radio to call that hospital and tell them we’re bringing a patient in.”

However, he did say that coordination is just now occurring because the right equipment and people are arriving in those communities to set it up for the first time.

Florida has also deployed several sophisticated mobile communications trailers to the affected areas. Temporary antenna towers can be erected and personnel operating on different radio channels whether 800 MHz, VHF or UHF, can be cross-patched through ACU-1000 devices to communicate with one another.

Luke said the trailers contain hundreds of VHF portable radios that operate on AA batteries. He said they take with them thousands of dollars of those batteries. However, he said his crews are not using any of the communications trailers because there are not enough.

Central Florida’s search and rescue teams were created as self-contained units that can survive 24 hours a day in such scenarios, Luke said. He said in such events it’s no longer sufficient to send in just police, fire and ambulance personnel, but also necessary to send in building engineers and technicians -- who maintain and operate communications equipment and other technologies -- as part of the team. Such teams were created following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“I would say the response to that Gulf Coast area, I sincerely believe, is 10 times better than it would have been had we not had Sept. 11 and if we not had the focus on training, the focus on equipment, the focus on readiness,” he said.

Outside search and rescue teams are usually deployed for 10 days, but Luke expected state and federal officials will likely ask rescue teams to extend their stays for several more weeks.

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