Communications Disaster Planning and Recovery: Changing Parameters for Changing Times

Jan. 1, 2006
Barry Furey discusses the need to plan for the role of communications systems and communications personnel in dealing with disasters.

Without a doubt, the severe weather season of 2005 was one of the more serious on record. Hurricanes Rita and Wilma followed closely on the heels of their sister Katrina, and the number of significant storms increased to the point that there were insufficient familiar names to call them. New England suffered major flooding that resulted in millions of dollars in damage and the relocation or evacuation of thousands of people. In the Midwest and Southeast, tornadoes - normally associated with the springtime - made deadly fall debuts. In short, wherever you were in the United States, you were often in the neighborhood of a disaster.

Obviously, the fire service played a major role in responding to these disasters. However, the widespread damage and destruction caused by this rash of extraordinarily severe weather placed significant burdens upon the public safety infrastructure. Dozens of fire stations were damaged or destroyed, firefighters and their families displaced, and entire geographic regions devastated. In the wake of these storms, numerous "adopt a department" programs sprang up, in an attempt to help our own, and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) began serious discussions about the need for a national mutual aid program.

Throughout this, however, little mention has been made of the role of communications systems and communications personnel in dealing with these issues. Of course, 911 and radio dispatching functions need to be maintained under the worst of conditions. This means robust equipment and sufficient personnel to provide uninterrupted service. However, in the face of these recent challenges, additional attention must be paid to what was once considered to be adequate planning.

As is often the case with transportation emergencies, no singular failure is normally to blame for creating a communications crisis. It often takes multiple concurrent disruptions for a problem to occur. The storms of 2005, however, provided all the necessary ingredients to test even the most robust networks and facilities. Numerous radio towers were damaged by high winds, and commercial power was lost for days. Other utilities such as sewer and water were compromised, and dispatch centers and transmitter sites were flooded. Downed trees and collapsed roadways severed redundant telephone circuits and isolated entire communities from the outside world - and from 911 service.

Communications personnel were stressed to the breaking point. While some of this stress came from dealing with callers who were literally in life-or-death situations, much more of it came from the extended duration of these storms. Even during incidents such as a major airline disaster, the bulk of activities are complete within the first hour or two. In the case of Katrina, many telecommunicators had no relief for days. Even when relieved, they often had no homes to go to or loved ones to offer support, due to storm damage and emergency evacuations.

This was put into perspective by Woody Glover, director of the St. Tammany Parish Communications District, in Covington, LA. "Our biggest hurt was personnel," Glover said. "We hit bottom on the Friday after the storm. Everybody's home was messed up and we had to start sending residents out of state. Personnel felt detached from their families. Even if they could get away, they couldn't see loved ones. People were torn between abandoning their jobs, and in their minds, abandoning their families."

This isolation of communications and communications personnel was not limited to one jurisdiction, however. Willis Carter, first vice president of APCO (Association of Public-safety Communications Officials) International and chief in charge of communications for the Shreveport Fire Department, heard and saw similar stories and situations throughout the Gulf Coast.

"Many communications centers in Louisiana were unable to receive approval through EMAC (Emergency Management Assistance Compact) for relief personnel although teams were ready and standing by to help," Carter said. "I?m not sure where the problem was. In some cases, I get the sense that police and fire departments simply "forgot" about their communications centers. In some cases, the communications center managers may not have been aware of the appropriate steps by which to request aid, and it was brought to my attention just this week that "communications centers" may not even be included on EMAC request forms."

To this end, there are several actions that can be taken to ensure the survivability and recovery of emergency communications, and to place into practice lessons learned from the experiences of those who suffered through unparalleled circumstances. Among these are:

  • Establish a mutual aid plan with other agencies for needed resources, but especially for telecommunicators. Fire departments have a predictable access to resources as an incident escalates. Whether this is an additional internal alarm or outside mutual aid, as an event grows in magnitude, resources keep pace. Unfortunately, few dispatch centers have such a structured response to augment staff as the demand for services increases.
Make sure that your plans include physically distant resources. In emergencies such as that caused by Katrina, relying on the department next door, in the next county or even in an adjoining state may not be possible. Think far outside the box. Establish a means of transporting these resources. Are highways open? Is fuel available? Is security needed? Cell phones cannot be relied on as an uninterrupted long-term resource. Towers may be damaged by wind, falling trees or flood waters. The locations that survive the initial affront may run out of power if only protected by battery backups. Although many locations successfully used wireless devices, others reported outages as well as overloading from public use. While many cell phone providers maintain emergency vehicles that can assist in the quick re-establishment of service, the scope of emergencies such as Katrina and Rita overwhelmed these resources. To put it bluntly, there were more communities in need than could possibly be directly assisted. Cell phones and portable radios need a place to be charged. There are numerous reports from Katrina of communications being compromised by dead or dying batteries. Buying vehicle chargers for cell phones is a cost-effective option. Sufficient batteries should also be on hand to allow for portable radios to remain in service while expended batteries are being recharged. Register critical telephone lines for priority restoration. But remember that in cases of severe infrastructure damage, the term "priority" is relative. Weather-related incidents are the most serious for which we have to plan. As terrible as they were, all of the events of 9/11 were contained within fairly limited geographic areas and involved a limited and defined number of jurisdictions. Katrina directly impacted 90,000 square miles, an area larger than the combined nations of North and South Korea. Mutual aid channels are designed to coordinate the operations of neighboring agencies, not to serve as a tactical channel. Imagine trying to run several multiple-alarm fires on the same frequency and you get the picture. Of course, if so-called "interagency" channels are all that are working, then concessions must be made. It should go without saying that radio discipline is especially critical when resources are scarce. Restore communications in an orderly fashion. Just as the fire department may wish to get a particular company or station back in service quickly due to the hazards in their district, so too should communications resources be brought back online based on the benefit gained. Where critical systems cannot immediately be restored, take what you can get. Half of a loaf is truly better than no loaf, and partial communications is decidedly better than none. Make plans based on worst-case scenarios. For example, when the Hinsdale, IL, telephone company central office was destroyed by fire in 1988, local telephone service was lost. As a temporary measure, public works vehicles were dispatched to key locations to serve as emergency reporting stations. Information gathered was radioed back to dispatch and the appropriate units assigned. Unfortunately, in situations such as Katrina, it is a relatively good bet that all public works vehicles will be busy elsewhere, dealing with their own set of critical problems. Look for viable alternatives. Keep your generator fuel tanks relatively filled. A rule of thumb for many has been to maintain at least a 50% supply on hand, but a safer suggestion might well be 75%. Top them off prior to any predicted serious weather. Although this will result in more frequent refueling, it will also result in greater operating time, and this is time that can prove critical if the standard source of refills is not available. Develop talk-around or "simplex" channels on all repeater systems to allow for user-to-user communications on the fireground. This serves the dual purpose of reducing repeater traffic and ensuring at least limited-range communications in case of an infrastructure failure. Employees should be encouraged to maintain an on-premises change of clothes, toiletries, non-perishable foodstuffs and prescription medicines sufficient to last several days. Employers should ensure a supply of fresh water and toilet facilities. As inelegant as it may sound, this can consist of cases of bottled water and one or more camping toilets, depending on the size of the center. Plan for critical incident stress debriefing (CISD). Even though such events may not directly equate to the loss of first responders, telecommunicators will potentially be facing the loss of their homes, displacement of their families and extremely protracted working hours. Any one of these can cause adverse reactions. In combination, they are as toxic a cocktail as the mixture of ingredients loosed by the flood waters. The Gulf hurricanes teamed up to create some exceptional challenges when entire families were relocated hundreds of miles from their homes, and in some cases family members were relocated to different facilities. This eliminated the possibility of personal contact between many emergency workers and their loved ones, removing a normally available avenue of support. Consider providing basic training to municipal employees who may be pressed into answering non-emergency phones during a crisis. This will lessen confusion and stress during actual incidents. Maintain an adequate supply of manual resources, map books, pads, pens and flashlights to use should the CAD system crash. Store backup data off site for use in recovery. Look past simply "backing-up" devices with one level of protection. Plan for the failure of backups, as well as multiple failures of primary devices. If an alternate dispatch center is not in place, identify a suitable facility, then develop plans and practice activation. Consider geographic factors in choosing this location, especially its position relative to the local flood plain. Rely on mobile command units, where available, but remember that they many are not designed for long-term operations.

In summation, the experiences of 2005 have underscored the need to plan for incidents of extended duration and exceptional magnitude, and to revisit our assumptions regarding staffing, levels of backup, and availability of supplies. Every communications center should plan for emergency operations that last for weeks instead of just hours or days, and fire departments must include communications and dispatch in their planning process. Without this cooperative planning on a local, state, regional and even national basis we will be unable to adequately address even more serious situations that certainly lie ahead.

Barry Furey, a Firehouse contributing editor, is former executive director of the Knox County, TN, Emergency Communications District. He is an ex-chief of the Valley Cottage, NY, Fire Department, ex-deputy chief of the Harvest, AL, Volunteer Fire Department and a former training officer for the Savoy, IL, Fire Department. Furey is past president of the Tennessee chapter of the Association of Public safety Communications Officials (APCO) and former chair of the APCO Homeland Security Task Force. He received the 2005 Tennessee APCO 911 Director of the Year Award.

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