08/24/2006

Emergency radios improve after Katrina, but problems persist

By BRUCE MEYERSON
AP Technology Writer

Some boats searching the flood waters left by Hurricane Katrina were crowded with survivors. Others had plenty of room. And whenever a packed boat came upon a rooftop with more stranded people, there was no way to radio one of the empty boats to come help.

The storm knocked out most of the towers for cell phones and radio systems used by state and local agencies. Yet even if the equipment had kept working, it would have been impossible to connect with many other emergency crews out on the water that night.

"It was almost prehistoric," said Walter Boasso, a Louisiana state senator who joined the search on a boat in the pitch dark of New Orleans. "There were hundreds of boats in the water. If there was no room in our boat, there was no one else we could call."

A year later, rescuers and relief workers along the Gulf Coast are more likely to be able to communicate with one another during a crisis than they were after Katrina. But despite the patchwork measures taken to help avert a repeat of last year's debacle - itself a repeat of communications failures on Sept. 11, 2001 - political turf battles still threaten to create a Tower of Babel any time there's an emergency requiring a response from more than one of the nation's 60,000 public safety entities.

It's been more than a decade since the first World Trade Center attack and the Oklahoma City bombing provoked new urgency to upgrade the nation's hodgepodge of wireless systems with unifying technologies. While the hurricane debacle brought new immediacy, action has remained scarce beyond the creation of more joint panels and task forces that, like their predecessors, have been bogged down by disagreement over how to do it, how to pay for it, and the frictions that typically arise whenever multiple arms of government "work together."

At the very least, though, officials have seized upon the unfortunate momentum provided by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to implement interim solutions using relatively low-cost, low-tech equipment that's been available for years.

One incentive for this swift response - compared with the communications problems exposed in New York on Sept. 11 - is that hurricane season is much more predictable than the next potential earthquake, plane crash or terrorist attack.

"Given the fragile condition of the Gulf region, the president directed that we work very closely with Louisiana officials and local officials down there with a joint emergency operating plan on steroids," said George Foresman, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's under secretary for preparedness.

Those efforts began with repairs to existing wireless networks damaged by last year's storms. This included the installation of new radio towers to fill network gaps in rural areas while providing more overlap in overall wireless coverage, boosting odds that emergency workers will find a signal even if some transmitters fail.

Local and federal agencies also have purchased more bridging systems that can patch together many assorted makes and models of radios. Responders arriving at the scene of an incident can plug a handset from their system into the bridge and communicate with others over an assigned channel.

Louisiana's state troopers now have more than a dozen ACU-1000 bridging systems from Raytheon Co., said Lt. Lawrence McLeary, public affairs supervisor for the Louisiana State Police.

Bridging equipment was already deployed in New Orleans before Katrina, but the facility where the equipment was housed was flooded. Now, state and federal agencies have been outfitting trucks with a combination of bridging, satellite and power-generation equipment so they can be moved around and transmit from areas where there are network or electrical outages. The National Guard, for example, recently awarded EFJ Inc. a $12 million order for 25 such systems, including one already delivered to the guard unit in Louisiana.

Efforts also have been made to anticipate other obstacles: some cash-strapped agencies may be using equipment that's too antiquated to bridge. Or, as with Katrina, one agency's system might be disabled while another's continues to work. For such occasions, the Louisiana State Police has purchased 300 extra portable radios that can be loaned to other agencies.

In all, $2.8 million from the State Police budget and about $5 million of the $8.6 million in federal homeland security funds awarded to Louisiana since Katrina and Rita have gone to communications projects, according to McLeary.

But the portrait of urgency and cooperation behind the past year's progress has been marred by more of the political elbowing that has epitomized the past decade.

Such tensions were evident this month as the DHS chafed at the prospect of the Federal Communications Commission passing new regulations for emergency communications, urging the FCC to work within existing DHS-led "frameworks" instead.

Likewise, in the Gulf region, state and local entities have clashed in the aftermath of the storms.

In January, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco formed a new entity within her office to "Design, construct, administer, and maintain a statewide shared voice, data, and imagery communication system."

Despite a mandate to collaborate with municipal agencies, that effort has been widely received as heavy-handed, dominated by the State Police and state homeland security office.

Months later, Louisiana's state Senate and House passed very different bills by a wide margin to address similar issues only to see those measures die in the other chamber. Both bills, one written by Sen. Boasso and passed unanimously by the Senate, drew stiff opposition from the governor's office.

"People were complaining that the locals were being shut out of the process," said Rep. Tim Burns, who sponsored the other bill in the House. Burns said he and Boasso, both Republicans, were "trying to take the politics out of the process."

Blanco, a Democrat, flexed her muscle against the bills, with high-ranking staff opposing them at public hearings. Efforts to discuss matter with Blanco's office were not successful.

As memories of the storm fade, such clashes over control and autonomy may only intensify. Yet some are hopeful.

"You're never going to get 100 percent shared national vision," said Foresman at DHS. But, he asserted, the past year's cooperation has created "a very viable template in terms of the level of detail and planning needed that we can transport to other states" and win over "local officials who own their own radio."

Jim Walker, Alabama's director of homeland security, said he's used "a carrot and stick" to guide local entities toward common goals set by the governor and Legislature. "I sat down with every point of contact from all our counties and our (Indian) tribe" to secure their cooperation, requiring them to get all city governments and agencies involved.

You need to respect that "the county sheriffs don't work for me," he said. "There's a certain pain threshold."

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