Communications: "The Katrina Effect"

After almost every disaster of any significance, there is a rush to fix the situation and generally the first fix is to throw money at it.

In July 2004, I wrote the following article, Communications: The "Avalanche Effect" many of the things that are being stated today are not new problems. This previous article addresses many different solutions, reliability, redundancy, parallel network solutions, etc.


I have been reading with much interest about the communications problems that have been plaguing the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina.

There are references to radio system failures, this worked - while that did not. Much reference to the failure of the New Orleans radio system with a contrasting reference that the state radio system did not. Hmmm, might I ask - "If the entire state of Louisiana had been flooded, would that system remained operational?"

More important is that we do not get side tracked or have a knee-jerk reaction as to how to quickly resolve this new communications crisis. It will take some time to get "the rest of the story".

Today I learned from newswire reports that Senate Bill 1703 has been introduced to study the feasibility of a "secondary" communications system be used if the first one is inadequate or fails - In other words to consider building a backup system.


This raises great concern to me as a public safety first responder - THIS DOES NOT MAKE SENSE!. Why on Earth would we consider building a "backup" communications system when public safety agencies across this country have been repeatedly asking for assistance to build reliable and necessary PRIMARY communications systems that have reliability and redundancy necessary to work not only in a catastrophic event but every day.


Immediately following 9/11, money began to flow for many purposes and I must say really helped bring much needed resources to public safety, especially in the areas of communications. But even before 9/11, a report was issued from the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee on September 11, 1996 which outlined several key points points I would like to highlight:

2. That radio communications systems must be designed to withstand catastrophic events including natural disasters.

3. That radio communications systems must be expandable to quickly handle escalating radio transmissions.

4. That interoperability was a critical need.


In 1997, Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allocate 24 MHz of spectrum to public safety in the 700 MHz band. The new spectrum would be used by public safety agencies for additional voice/data capacity, new advanced high-speed data, imaging and video communications, and greater interoperability.

Congress set a date of December 31, 2006 when television stations must vacate their analog broadcast channels as part of the transition to digital television (DTV), including channels 60-69 (the 700MHz band). But Congress left a large loophole in the law which in effect fails to set a firm date when TV stations must vacate this spectrum. A small number of television stations in that spectrum currently prevent public safety access in most of the major metropolitan areas. Consequently, this valuable spectrum for fire, EMS and law enforcement is not available even though it is urgently needed.


The the 9/11 Commission report also re-emphasized the need to expedite additional radio frequency spectrum.

To date, there has been little movement to free up the much needed 700 MHz radio spectrum needed by public safety. In many cases, this spectrum is needed to expanded existing radio communications systems (especially in some large metropolitan cities) and in other cases build new, reliable and interoperable communications systems.

My first argumentative point against this is that before we even consider a "backup" communications system, we must first build reliable PRIMARY communications systems to enable first responders to communicate effectively EVERYDAY. Along those lines, funding should be provided to assist every locality in the United States to meet a minimum operability standard which also addresses interoperability, reliability and redundancy.


Congress is clearly on the right train just on the wrong track for the wrong destination. Communications are the single most important tool to effectively maintain command and control and there are many PRIMARY systems in the United States that are seriously deficient.


2. Establish a minimum baseline standard for communications systems which define reliability, redundancy and interoperability.

3. Provide a continued stream of federal funding that will assist localities to meet the minimum communications requirements.

4. Establish federal grants and/or provide tax incentives to the private sector and entrepreneurs to develop new communications technologies for public safety.

5. Utilize the work that is underway by SAFECOM.