Communicating: Weathering the Storm

There is an old saying that goes, “There is going to be weather, whether or not.” While this is certainly true, it seems that during the past 12 months, much of this weather has been extreme. Record temperatures, heavy snows, tornadoes...


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This leads us to another critical link in the natural disaster plan – radio communications. We have already discussed the need for appropriate power at the dispatch center and remote sites, but the need for power also continues to portable radios, pagers, personal digital assistants, netbooks and laptops. As our reliance on these devices increases, so does our need to ensure their uninterrupted operation during protracted events. So-called quick chargers for our portables are good, but this still means that a sufficient number of batteries must be on hand and charged prior to the emergency so that immediate swap outs can occur. These chargers must also be located at facilities having emergency power.

One of the most flexible and beneficial tools for smaller electronics is the mobile charger. You don’t need a backup generator; a car battery will make it work. This is good advice for the public as well. As more and more citizens get their news and emergency notifications via web-enabled devices, this gateway quickly closes when the batteries go dead. Another overlooked need can be the parts and labor required to accomplish radio repairs. While redundancies, excess capacity and spare radios can carry you through an initial crisis, equipment failures can eliminate all of these positives. Having trained and well-supplied technicians available provides an additional layer of protection.

 

Interoperability Issues

Interoperability, of course, must be considered; especially where resources from remote areas are called in to assist. In true disasters, assistance may be provided by federal and state agencies as well as the private sector. The most important decisions are the level of interoperability required and how this interoperability will be accomplished. For local responders, this interoperability may already built in. For others, fixed or mobile patches and pools of portable radios can usually handle the task. Since it is not necessary (and probably not a good idea) for everyone to be able to talk to everyone else, some interoperability may be carried out face to face or by telephone from the command post or emergency operations center.

Some final thoughts to consider concerning radios are that even multi-frequency trunking systems can get overwhelmed, and that inclement weather can have an impact, as well. The first lesson I learned firsthand, when my center handled a significant tornadic event, was that very early in the response it became clear that our normal practice of assigning a talk group to every event was not going to work. There were just too many calls. In the second case, as a general rule of thumb, wind, rain, ice and snow can lessen the coverage and clarity of certain radios. Take this into account when operating in known areas of marginal performance.

Finally, to make this all work, you need to ensure the safety and presence of your communications staff. They will be expected to work long hours, field more and unfamiliar types of calls and will be dealing with issues of loss of utilities at their homes; perhaps even loss of those homes themselves. They will have dependent minor and elder-care issues, yet will need to function at high levels of productivity for days on end. They may require access to transportation and non-traditional forms of day care.

Since relationships between telecommunicators and first responders are not uncommon, their significant others may have also been recalled to duty. Work out these issues as thoroughly as possible long before an event. Once they get to work, they will have to be fed, boarded and provided sanitation. Is there space onsite for sleeping? Are hotels or shelters nearby? What plans do you have for drinking water or bathing if the water plant goes off line? And where do you get a half-dozen portable toilets after the sewer plant is flooded?

In order to assist in protracted events, a number of states have instituted Telecommunicator Emergency Response Taskforces (TERTs) designed to formally augment local staffing. More information on these programs can be found at http://www.njti-tert.org. Again, preparing for the worst makes everything else look easier.

While some of the concerns mentioned here may have been mentioned before, the need for critical planning deserves repeating. Since there are no reports of public safety communications systems failing during the recent East Coast earthquake, you may never have to experience these problems firsthand. Demands can come from anywhere and at any time. With a little luck – and a lot of planning – you can successfully weather any storm.