A not so dry run
Hurricane Katrina exposed the strengths and weaknesses of emergency management systems needed for homeland security
- By John Moore
- Dec 05, 2005
The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina tested the limits of the information technologies employed in disaster response. Three months after the storm battered the Gulf Coast, emergency managers and IT executives continue to compile and ponder the IT lessons learned from Katrina. The process already has begun to shape the ways in which technology will be deployed in future disasters, whether natural or man-made. The latter category has emergency managers and technologists particularly worried, after witnessing the destruction of an unintentional event.
"It scared a lot of us," said Michael Helfrich, senior vice president of product strategy and marketing at Jabber, which makes collaboration technology for emergency management and other applications. But what are we going to do if an incident is caused by folks who really want to do us harm? he asked.
When disaster strikes, the response effort relies on an array of IT resources. Command and control systems coordinate rescue operations. Digital imagery and geographic information systems help provide a common operating view of an unfolding situation. Technology also plays a role in reporting incidents, delivering supplies and registering evacuees.
In the case of Katrina, some IT elements worked well, while others were found wanting. Logistics systems emerged as one particular weakness. Katrina also underscored the inadequacy of conventional telecommunications systems, such as landlines and wireless phone networks, in a major disaster. Satellite communication filled the gap in New Orleans and other jurisdictions, enabling Web-based messaging and collaboration.
Some observers contend that Katrina and previous catastrophes also highlighted the lack of an overarching, integrated emergency management system that spans local, state and federal authorities. The Homeland Security Department's Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Incident Management System (NIMS) are steps in the right direction, but work remains to be done.
Even the task of defining the individual elements of an emergency management system -- much less creating an integrated system of systems -- has proved challenging. Every disaster is different, which complicates the job of defining standard features. But initiatives now aim to hammer out reference models for rapidly deployable networks and operation centers.
Technology of response
Communications systems provide the baseline infrastructure for emergency response. But Katrina demonstrated the vulnerability of that infrastructure when it struck Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Kenneth Moran, director of the Office of Homeland Security in the Federal Communications Commission's Enforcement Bureau, reported during House testimony in October that Katrina crippled 38 emergency call centers, brought down more than 1,000 wireless phone sites and knocked out more than 3 million telephone lines.
Emergency responders' tactical radio systems met a similar fate when power generators supporting broadcast towers failed.
"There's a shortage of technology...that can operate effectively where there is a broad-scale power outage," Helfrich said.
As conventional systems shut down, collaboration among emergency response teams, state agencies and federal authorities shifted to a number of improvised systems.
In Bay St. Louis and Waveland, Miss., for example, a team from the World Wide Consortium for the Grid (W2COG) deployed a so-called hastily formed network based on satellite communication. W2COG is a not-for-profit organization pursuing network-centric technology. The group's Katrina relief team consisted of 15 students from the Naval Postgraduate School and their professor, Brian Steckler. Employees from Microsoft and Cisco Systems also participated.
Extremely basic communications
When the W2COG group reached the Mississippi coastal communities in equipment-laden vans, it found no communications infrastructure in place. Team members set up portable satellite downlinks to establish broadband Internet access, which was extended using 802.11 and 802.16 wireless technology. Through this network, the team was able to provide Internet telephony via Skype service and command and control capability via Microsoft's Groove collaboration software, said Chris Gunderson, executive director of W2COG.
The network enabled communication among local citizens, state and federal emergency services, and nongovernmental organizations providing disaster relief. Communications centers were set up in store parking lots, schools and hospitals.
"We [provided] an extremely basic capability that allowed folks at the disaster to talk to people outside of the area," Gunderson said.
MCI also provided satellite-based communications services through its Big Blue tractor-trailer fleet. Three of those mobile communications trucks were dispatched to the New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss., areas, where they supported emergency operation centers.
The trucks are equipped with satellite uplinks that connect to MCI's voice and data network. Jerry Edgerton, senior vice president of MCI Government Markets and Systems Integrators, said the fleet provides "satellite service with voice and data interfaces so we can get emergency restoral of services."
In addition to quickly assembled, ad hoc networks, more formal solutions also emerged during the Katrina response effort. For example, Naval Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officers (NEPLOs) made extensive use of the Area Security Operations Command and Control (ASOCC) system. Apogen Technologies is the main contractor behind the system.
NEPLOs are attached to FEMA and adjutant general's departments in the affected states, which include the National Guard and often emergency management operations.
"Our primary function is to provide situational awareness and coordination for response operations," said R.P. Davis, a NEPLO project manager.
ASOCC, which started as an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration project at the Pentagon, provides situational awareness and first responder alerting, among other capabilities. But NEPLOs heavily used ASOCC's chat room feature, provided through the Defense Collaboration Tool Suite (DCTS).
The chat room hosted as many as 40 people at a time and handled about 4,500 instant messages during the crisis. "It gave us a tremendous situational awareness picture," Davis said.
NEPLOs in the disaster area used DCTS to communicate equipment needs up the chain to NEPLOs at FEMA's national headquarters, which in turn used DCTS to update regional and state NEPLOs on the flow of resources. Among other duties,
NEPLOs keep tabs on military equipment available for deployment in disaster relief.
With ASOCC and DCTS, Katrina marked an improvement in communications compared with previous disasters.
Capt. Robert Gulley, NEPLO for Louisiana, recalled that he couldn't communicate with anybody during Hurricane Ivan in 2003.
Katrina demonstrated the promise of nimble networks and instant messaging, but it also revealed severe shortcomings in logistics systems. The government's relief effort was roundly criticized for delays in delivering supplies.
DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff acknowledged the problem while testifying before Congress.
"In Katrina, FEMA faced challenges in having full situational awareness of where the needs were greatest, getting supplies into affected areas and tracking shipments of supplies to ensure that they reach the people who need them.... FEMA's system for moving supplies into a disaster area is not adequate for catastrophic events."
The logistics issue, brought to the forefront by Katrina, has been lurking behind the scenes for some time.
"I've been saying for 10 years that the Achilles' heel of disaster response is logistics," said Bruce Baughman, director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency. "The problem is that FEMA has had a very limited logistical capability over the years."
FEMA operates a Logistics and Information Management System, but Baughman called the system antiquated. Although the system has had some modifications, "it is still not what you need in resource tracking," he said.
The main problem, according to Baughman, is lack of asset visibility -- the ability to track an item from manufacturing plant to end user.
Beyond logistics, technology integration provides a subtler challenge in disaster relief. Local, state and federal emergency management systems tend to operate in isolation. Gunderson is familiar with that issue from his work with the Defense
"These disparate organizations are so used to fielding their own proprietary systems," he said. "How do you break the culture that keeps those folks operating independently?"
DHS and FEMA are pursuing a couple of initiatives to get local, state and federal emergency management agencies on the same page.
NIMS, for example, is an attempt to provide a common doctrine to facilitate collaboration among all levels of government. NIMS has created 120 standard definitions that categorize emergency management equipment and personnel.
The shared terminology is intended to help local authorities pinpoint what they need when requesting assistance from state or federal agencies. For example, the "resource typing" definitions specify four varieties of fixed-wing observation aircrafts, based on their capacity, communications gear and ability to provide imagery.
"NIMS is way overdue for implementation," Baughman said. Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 requires state and local governments to adopt NIMS as a condition for receiving federal preparedness funding. DHS has set a Sept. 30, 2006, deadline for compliance.
IT support for NIMS is expected to come from the Unified Incident Command and Decision Support program. That DHS effort, which will undergo a review later this year, will let public safety officials share video, voice and data communications, and manage resources.
Although that program is a work in progress, HSIN, another attempt at an overarching solution, played a role in Katrina relief. Scott McCumsey, a project manager at Apogen, said HSIN was used to gather and store incident information in a common database. Devised as a counterterrorism communications network, HSIN was built on the Joint Regional Information Exchange System.
The future: Lessons learned
The utility of satellite communication stands as one of the most important takeaways from Katrina.
"Satellite communication is the only thing that we can rely on," Helfrich said. "I would posit the notion that meshed Wi-Fi networks that have a very specific satellite reach back are the types of systems that have to be hardened and deployed."
Those satellite-based capabilities are likely to be found in pre-positioned, mobile units.
Edgerton said MCI mobilized its satellite-equipped emergency communications vehicles in anticipation of Katrina. The company now seeks to refine its deployment approach. As for mobile units, "how many do you build and where you put them?" he asked. MCI's mobile communications units include trucks, construction trailers and cases that can be carried on top of a sport utility vehicle.
Increasing production of ad hoc networks is another objective in a technology sector that has lacked reference models. Gunderson said the aim of hastily formed networks is to standardize the technology and make it available to emergency responders on a commercial basis.
Helfrich noted that Strong Angel II technology demonstration in 2004 also showed "how we can take commercial off-the-shelf technologies and fit them into a highly chaotic environment." Strong Angel II, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, demonstrated how technology could be assembled in areas lacking the infrastructure to assist in humanitarian missions.
Gunderson said his group has had contact with Strong Angel II representatives.
The enhancement of existing systems and networks will also shape future response capabilities.
In one case, the Louisiana State Police are building the Louisiana Fusion and Analytical Center to exploit data obtained through HSIN and other sources. At the time of Katrina, incident information from HSIN couldn't be combined with geospatial data from the Louisiana Geological Survey to create maps for emergency managers, McCumsey said. But the fusion center, which is still under development, will provide that capability, he added. Apogen and Instaknow, an interoperability solutions vendor, are developing the center.
FEMA's logistics system, meanwhile, might be up for a major revision.
"We must more effectively partner with the public and private sectors and tap into their expertise to overhaul our logistics system within FEMA," Chertoff said. He added that the agency needs a just-in-time inventory and delivery system.
The agencies and contractors refining emergency management technologies work toward an unforeseeable deadline and a rather grim measure of success. They won't know how good their technology is until something bad happens.