It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Four years after 9/11, and with the Department of Homeland Security having provided the states with $8.6 billion for new equipment, training, and disaster exercises, the New Orleans’ public safety radio system shouldn’t have failed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But it did. The result, as anyone who watched the chaotic pictures broadcast from that stricken city knows, was unadulterated chaos.
What happened? Can it be kept from happening again? And if it can be prevented, will those in charge do what needs to be done this time?What Katrina Did
By and large, New Orleans’ 24-channel public safety radio network (police, fire, and EMS) endured Katrina’s onslaught. It had been designed to do so. Recently upgraded to a M/A-COM 800 MHz trunked radio system designed by independent consultant Nick Tusa
, the system’s power was safeguarded by battery backups and supplemented by natural gas-fueled generators at its five transmitter sites.
During the hurricane itself, the only major casualty was the city’s primary radio transmitter atop the Energy Center building. According to Tusa, who was in New Orleans soon after Katrina struck, “Once the technicians gained building access, it was quickly determined (after a 40-floor hike in dark stairwells) that the generator radiator was damaged due to a large piece of flying glass.”
Unfortunately, New Orleans’ natural gas lines got hammered by Katrina. As a result, the transmitters, which had survived the storm, soon became starved for fuel. They might have kept running had backup tanks of liquefied natural gas been onsite, but they weren’t; apparently this was because the site owners refused to let the city install such tanks.
With its transmitters down, the city’s radio system basically collapsed. Officers on the street still had their portables—as did patrol cars with their mobiles—but the heart of the system was dead. To make matters worse, regional telephone and cell phone service was also out of service, again thanks to Katrina.
Meanwhile, the New Orleans Police Department’s (NOPD) Dispatch center had problems of its own. Normally, it operates on the second floor of NOPD headquarters. However, rising floodwaters forced the department to relocate to the Hilton Hotel.
If this wasn’t enough, the Louisiana State Police subsequently prevented M/A-COM technicians, who came to help New Orleans with its radio problems, from entering the city. The fact that the city government had asked M/A-COM to come didn’t make a difference; according to the AP,“I didn’t get a chance to plead my case,’’ says M-A/COM service manager Jan Edwards.
“The decisions [to block the techs] were being made by field troops and involved no interaction with their dispatchers,” noted Tusa. “They just said ‘No, turn back’, according to other technicians that were blocked entry from multiple entry points. One guy with a boat was even turned back!”
Around New Orleans, other public safety agencies were coping with their own radio disasters. For instance, according to www.radioreference.com, the 350 foot transmission tower in Jefferson Parish was knocked down by Katrina, crippling the parish’s Motorola SmartZone system. The public safety radio system in Washington Parish was also knocked out of action, as was the “city of Slidell’s Police/Fire 800MHz Motorola Smartnet II radio system,” says Tusa. “It was damaged due to transmitter site flooding.”
However, the St. Tammany Parish M/A-COM EDACS radio system “stayed operational during and after the storm and continues to operate,” Tusa said. “We are thrilled that our first responders have been able to rely 100% on our radio communications system throughout this demanding time, despite the fact that the system has experienced more use during the last two weeks then we would usually see in two months, says Rick Williams, radio maintenance division manager for the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office in a news release from M/A-COM.
According to this same release, the city of Slidell got back on air by switching to M/A-COM radios and going through the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s radio system. “We are very pleased to offer an interoperability link to our EDACS system to the surrounding community as we do our best to create a connected communications system for all the public safety officials operating in the area,” Williams said.The Impact
The loss of the city of New Orleans’ radio system isolated officers in the field, seriously disrupting the command and control structure for police, fire, and EMS. This disruption profoundly compromised officers’ ability to do their jobs in the very worst of conditions.
What few usable frequencies that remained were Mutual Aid channels, which were overwhelmed by the number of people trying to access them. ‘’There might be two or three channels for the area, and there are 4,000 people trying to talk,’’ explained M/A-COM vice president of operations Chuck Shaughnessy in an Associated Press (AP) report. ‘’It tries to be controlled chaos, but it’s usually not very controlled.’’
Adding to the problems was the lack of communications between the M/A-COM-toting NOPD and the Motorola-carrying LSP. This was sadly ironic, given that “There was radio connectivity between the State Police and the City EDACS network,” says Tusa. So what went wrong? “We found that the Troop B dispatcher had, possibly in the heat of battle, selected the wrong talk group on the City EDACS radio system link radio that is located at the LSP dispatch facility—one that was not being used during the incident, itself.”
Meanwhile, the interoperable radio links between the city and the adjacent Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s office also didn’t help, despite the fact that “The two trunked radio systems were linked using four radio links as well as a partial T-1 connection,” Tusa said.
“Additionally, there was a secondary, fully redundant interoperability link system, termed NOMIC, that duplicated link functionality at an off-site location. The T-1s failed, JPSO’s radio tower failed, which disabled their radio system, and the secondary NOMIC site was flooded.” The result was that even with interoperability connections in place, “multiple failures at all levels rendered communications unusable.”Those Who Helped
Before considering if New Orleans’ “radio chaos” could be prevented from happening again, it is worth saluting those people who helped after the hurricane. For instance, Motorola sent down over 2,500 portable radios, charged batteries and chargers, plus three emergency communications trailers.
M/A-COM sent over 10,000 pieces of equipment including 1,500-plus radio handsets, and had over 50 personnel in the region to provide after-hurricane repairs. M/A-COM techs— finally allowed into the city on September 1st—fixed the radiator on the City of New Orleans’ Energy Center transmitter and returned it to service. And EF Johnson sent a number of Project 25 digital radios to the National Guard.
Meanwhile, at least 20 Incident Commander Radio Interfaces (ICRIs)—audio bridges that interconnect different radio systems to provide on-the-spot interoperability—have been deployed in the Gulf region. Ten are being used by the Houston Police Department to manage communications around the Astrodome, where 12,000 refugees were being housed at press time. Four more were brought down by the Charlottesville, VA Fire Department. Two they owned, and two more were lent to them by ICRI manufacturer Communications-Applied Technology.
“Our first assignment was to the VA Hospital in Jackson, MS to restore telephone and internet service,” says CFD Chief Charles Werner. “However, while enroute, their service was restored and we were then redirected to Hancock, MS to provide satellite communications for the Florida Law Enforcement team there, so that they could connect back to their LAN and communicate with other agencies.”
In this configuration, the CFD’s portable communications SUV was able to provide WiFi connectivity for officers at the Hancock site, and satellite telephones for voice communications. In charge of the truck was CFD Special Operations Battalion Chief Bill Purcell; “while Bill Purcell has returned, the equipment was removed from our vehicle and remains in operation today,” Chief Werner said.Can the Chaos Be Prevented?
After all that was learned from 9/11, the radio chaos that engulfed Katrina seemed unbelievable. Granted, this was a disaster that took place on a much larger geographic scale, but it came with lots of warning. In contrast, the horrors of 9/11 didn’t become comprehensible until after they happened.
Issues of specific blame will be hashed out for months, if not years, to come. There is no need to tackle them here. However, the general questions of ‘How could this happen again?’ and ‘Can we prevent it next time?’ are ripe topics for this space, and so we will try to answer them.
First: How could this happen again? According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune,“The problem was money,” said Lt. Col. Joey Booth, who is in charge of the crisis response and special operations section of the Louisiana State Police.”
“But that is no longer a problem,” continues the newspaper’s report at www.nola.com. “Since Katrina, Motorola Inc has received a $16.9 million contract, which FEMA is paying for, to make the radio infrastructure in the New Orleans area interoperable, with sufficient backups. The State Police plan to have the new system up and running in New Orleans in a week’s time.”
One can only hope that New Orleans’ radio problems are as easily solved as the Times-Picayune believes. However, given that $8.6 billion in DHS funds since 2001 hasn’t resolved the US interoperability issue, it is hard to see how $16.9 million and seven days could make the difference in the Big Easy.
“$16.9 million will not scratch the surface of this issue,” says Tusa. “The city alone uses 4,500 radios: At a cost of $4k each, where does that leave you? And what about auxiliary networks such as mobile data/computing, fire house alerting, and ‘tear and run’? Each voice radio infrastructure site of the size used by New Orleans and with supportive subsystems cost in the order of $1.5-$2 million to implement.
That $16.9 million is only a drop in a very large bucket and in no way solves the issue of interoperability with outside agencies such as FEMA, National Guard, US Army, Coast Guard, and the Army Corps of Engineers that operate on frequency bands that are in no way compatible, radio-to-radio, with 700/800MHz spectrum allocated to public safety.”
Back to our first question: How could this happen again? Well, money was definitely a factor, because “No Homeland Security monies, not one dime, have been applied to infrastructure enhancements or upgrades to the City of New Orleans EDACS trunked radio system,” Tusa said. “All city enhancements and maintenance costs have been fully funded by the city.”
Cooperation between agencies evidently was not a factor, given that interoperable communications already existed between the city and the LSP, despite switching mistakes made during the crisis. This being said, the reason New Orleans’ public safety radio system ultimately failed was due to a lack of political will.
A case in point: With the right legislative support at the highest levels, property owners would not have been able to stop the city from installing liquefied natural gas tanks at transmitter sites. Had these tanks been in place, the city’s radio network might have stayed on air.
Which brings us to our second question: Can we prevent the post-Katrina radio chaos next time? Technologically, yes; it can be done. Practically, it is also possible, given the DHS’ ability to fund such projects, the wide range of vendor solutions available, and first responder agencies’ willingness to work together and make interoperability a reality.
This being said, another occurrence of radio chaos seems inevitable unless Washington takes charge and makes national interoperability a fundamental policy goal. This doesn’t mean that a super-agency needs to be created: in fact, the problems experienced by the DHS-controlled FEMA points out the dangers of such bureaucratic centralization.
However, there needs to be a clear, agreed-upon set of standards on what constitutes interoperable technology for all US first responder agencies, standards that need to be translated into equipment purchases, network configurations, and formal interdepartmental links. Moreover, this initiative needs to be fast-tracked, and started now.
Most importantly, it’s time for the people who actually use public safety radios to lead the charge towards interoperability, because “money alone is not the answer,” Tusa said. “Too many politicians and bureaucrats are trying to solve problems without taking time to understand the mechanisms involved in the failures and moving forward. If things don’t change, I see just a replication of past mistakes using seemingly newer technologies, under the cover of unbridled spending.”
The bottom line: Without a clear, first responder-directed commitment to establishing reliable, nationally-interoperable public safety radio networks, the kind of radio chaos experienced during 9/11 and Katrina will happen again.
James Careless is a freelance writer who specializes in first responder communications issues. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.