Radio upkeep is no small task in New Orleans

To make sure nothing goes wrong during their Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, some public safety officials and M/A-COM technicians have gone so far as to sleep near the systems they’re trying to repair.

Since Katrina hit Aug. 29, the company, which installed the city’s 800 MHz first responder radio system, has been supplying fuel for generators and repairing and maintaining tower sites.

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

“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 situation was especially problematic in a city that has been 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 major radio tower sites.

“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.

A helicopter placed one 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 about 60 five-gallon diesel tanks up 40 flights because the building’s elevators didn’t work without power, which wasn’t restored until Sept. 19, Facella said. Technicians are also alternately using one generator while taking the other off-line to perform preventive maintenance.

At the main police dispatch center at another site, workers tried to use a helicopter to place a second generator near a 250-foot antenna tower, which sits on top of the police parking garage. But Facella said the plan failed because the helicopter might strike the tower while lowering the generator.

Instead, workers decided to use a crane. However they had to wait until the five feet of water in the parking lot abated. Once the water receded, the crane lifted the two-ton generator into the parking garage, but it was about 100 feet away from the desired site. A forklift truck carried the generator to its destination.

Most generators are not designed to run continuously for weeks, and technicians need to constantly maintain them. They also have endured unpleasant conditions, such as sleeping without cots or air conditioners on the 34th floor. Air conditioners were eventually rigged to draw heat away from the radio equipment room. Until power returned earlier this week, workers had to carry water and food up 33 flights of stairs, he said.

Facella said most problems they’ve encountered have been logistical. 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 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 after that.

M/A-COM technicians couldn’t enter the city for a while even though they had credentials. If they were able to get in sooner, they could repaired the generator in several hours, Facella said. Instead the company’s technicians fixed the generator Sept. 1, the Thursday after Katrina hit.

Even though the main system went down, Facella said there were a couple of stations that provided first responders with two basic communications channels from Aug. 29 to Sept. 1. He said those channels were 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 officials nationwide pouring in to New Orleans to help, many had their own communications systems that were incompatible with the 800 MHz system. Facella said the company provided the city with additional portable radios to give to others who needed to get on the system. Otherwise, they could use cellular phones, which have had increasingly improved range as workers repair cellular towers.

After the police headquarters tower site was repaired last week, the system’s reserved communications capacity was activated, which allowed most radios to be reprogrammed to work on the 800 MHz system, 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 durability of their communications systems, infrastructure and interoperability. M/A-COM officials have learned another lesson: It needs better credentials because 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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