Communication Preparedness for Emergency Response

How government and emergency agencies can assess and improve the interoperability of communications systems.

By Greg Meacham

From suicide hijackers to terror cells to dirty bombs, the security landscape has changed immeasurably since 9/11, forcing government and emergency response agencies to plan for, and contend with, the possibility of biohazard airborne attacks, weapons of mass destruction and physical attacks on symbolic targets, such as financial institutions.

Current planning for these types of scenarios focuses on response processes, including equipment needs, evacuation routes and protocol, and determining locations for ad-hoc shelters and medical facilities. Obviously, these elements have to be constantly evaluated when formulating an emergency response strategy. Unfortunately, the one component that is absolutely paramount to the execution of a successful emergency response mission, but is not tested with the same rigor as response processes, is the communication system and infrastructure used by the various government and emergency agencies.

Private communications systems are designed based upon peak average usage. The cost of these systems limits the amount of excess capacity that you can build to deal with disaster-driven surges in usage.

Private systems do not scale well in an emergency; this phenomenon was demonstrated by the events of 9/11. Both New York and the Washington metro area have sophisticated communications systems, which are effective for daily use. However, when the response includes virtually every on- and off-duty responder, as well as responders from neighboring jurisdictions, they experienced system overload resulting in call blocking. Strict emergency communications protocols can mitigate this problem somewhat by the triaging of communications, but this involves subjective decision-making in crisis situations, which in turn creates the possibility that important communications might not get through.

It cannot be overstated: Without a working and effective communications system, an emergency response operation will not be able to be carried out properly. This could result in anything from confusion to sheer pandemonium to outright catastrophe.

An excerpt from the 9/11 Commission Report spotlights what can happen when an emergency communications protocol is not in place: "Effective decision-making in New York was hampered by problems in command and control in internal communications… The Port Authority's response was hampered by the lack both of standard operating procedures and of radios capable of enabling multiple commands to respond to an incident in unified fashion."

Proactive Approach to Testing

When agencies do evaluate their emergency situation communications plan, the physical elements are often ignored. It's more than just deciding on which service provider, devices and back-up systems to use. What happens if your primary transmitter is lost or the mobile switching office of a major telecom carrier shuts down? In most instances, when a venue for Field Training Exercises (FTXs) is announced, one of the first things that is done is the technical personnel from participating organizations meet and develop a communications plan that invariably includes ordering additional telecommunications circuits to support the exercise, caching two-way portable radios and changing code plugs to facilitate the exercise. While these actions are an important part of the overall exercise, they presuppose that one has prior knowledge about the time and venue of the event and does little to test communications preparedness.

In order to get the most accurate gauge of their communications systems' readiness, government and emergency agencies need to adopt a military approach to conducting FTXs. To properly appraise any communications plan, an agency must first "test-to-fail" by putting all communications systems and protocols under the duress of a worst-case scenario. This means conducting FTXs while limiting available voice channels to simulate the degradation of grade of service inherent to the system and force participants into other less frequently used methods of communication. Most responders make use of commercial services for voice and data.

These systems might include pagers, short messaging, two-way commercial radio (push to talk),

e-mail, cellular and satellite. While these systems offer many and varied capabilities, the effective use of these alternative systems needs to be practiced so that agencies can answer the following questions: Are address books, wireless directories and talk groups established? Can you wirelessly transmit lengthy advisories in the broadcast mode? Is there an interoperability plan if the event is large enough to require emergency responders external to your normal operating environment?

These are all critical capabilities that can be off-loaded from primary Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems allowing you to stretch this resource. How do you communicate with people who are not part of your LMR network, such as volunteers or political leadership? Do you have priority access to commercial systems? These issues should be addressed in your disaster communications plan and then practiced. As officials from New York will testify, to ensure success in a disaster you need to follow the 3Ps: practice, practice again and practice some more.

In addition to practice, one of the many lessons learned from The 9/11 Commission Report is the need for a proactive versus reactive approach to testing communications systems: "Of particular concern to the chiefs – in light of the FDNY difficulties in responding to the 1993 bombing – was communication capability. One of the chiefs recommended testing the repeater channel to see if it would work."

In hindsight, it is easy to say that during an actual crisis of epic proportions is not an optimum time to be having a discussion to decide whether to test the World Trade Center's complex repeater system.

Connecting Agencies through Interoperability

There is also the issue of different agencies communicating on different systems. For example, what happens when a situation requires a coordinated response from state and local agencies, the ATF, FBI and the U.S. Marshall Service? Currently, there is not an interoperable system in place that allows various agencies to communicate on a uniform, base platform.

The Public Safety Wireless Network compiled the Washington, D.C. Area Sniper Investigation – Communications After-Action Report, which included these findings regarding interoperability solutions: "During the course of the investigation, several interoperability solutions were deployed to enhance both tactical and administrative interoperable communications between hundreds of officers and agents using disparate communications systems."

The report emphasizes the strong need for a communications bridge between commercial and government agencies. This requires a layered capabilities approach to communications using multiple technologies and providers. Quite simply, this means overlapping the types of voice and data technologies mentioned previously that ensure the mission can be focused on, status of personnel identified and that communication breakdowns are not an issue. Audio cross-connect switches can be used to link disparate two-way radio systems to provide interoperable communications.

In the type of event that requires response from multiple agencies spanning a large geographic area, the Washington, D.C. Area Sniper Investigation – Communications After-Action Report concluded, "The fact that many different solutions were deployed should provide law enforcement executives and communications personnel a lesson that there are no 'one-size-fits-all' interoperability solutions. Interoperability solution deployments frequently depend on the area of operation, agencies involved, existing systems and information to be exchanged."

And to re-emphasize the need for a proactive approach to testing communications systems, the report went on to say, "Local, state and federal agencies would be well advised to develop possible scenarios in their region and identify alternate interoperability solutions that could provide interoperability across systems during those scenarios."

The 9/11 Commission Report had a generally favorable review of the response to the attack on the Pentagon, largely because it was so different in scale than the attack on the World Trade Center. In addition, the response showed the strong professional relationships and trust among the emergency responders. The same cannot be said, however, for the communications: "Almost all aspects of communications continue to be problematic, from initial notification to tactical operations. Cellular telephones were of little value… Radio channels were initially over-saturated… Pagers seemed to be the most reliable means of notification when available and used, but most firefighters are not issued pagers."

This speaks directly to the fact that not only does every government and emergency agency need to have a Plan B for their communications system but also a Plan C and D. To achieve an effective blend of communication options, there are a variety of automated, off-the-shelf solutions that can mitigate system overloads and the possibility of communications failure.

Common Language Barriers

Devices that are able to communicate along a common platform are a vital component in a multi-jurisdictional emergency response, but they are of little value if the differences in communication-related terminology, and codes and jargon between the various responding agencies, make it difficult for officials to communicate with one another. "The sniper incident helped reinforce the concept that incorporating plain language as the operational communications standard detailed in any multi-agency emergency response plans or exercises would solidify its importance and ensure that its use became a de facto standard during multi-agency or mutual-aid situations," according to The 9/11 Commission Report.

Just like there are standards governing bodies that technology developers must adhere to, there is a strong need for the development of standard language protocols for all government and law enforcement agencies to facilitate communication between assorted agency personnel, using common English language whenever possible to lessen the possibility of confusion during times of crisis.

Third-Party System Audit

In addition to working with a service provider to conduct extensive and strenuous FTXs to test the various fail points within a communications system, a service provider and relevant association, like the International Association of Fire Chiefs, can help agencies audit their emergency communications capabilities and processes. From there, they can make recommendations, but more importantly, they can provide third-party, independent reports for use in the agency's budgeting and acquisition of new technology to address whatever communications shortcomings they have.

Crucial Take Aways

In order to benefit from the lessons of previous events, it is essential for emergency response agencies to understand that there is no such thing as too much practice and preparation when it comes to communications planning for disaster situations. FTXs should be conducted in conjunction with service providers to account for any number of worst-case scenarios. And, agencies need to audit their current communications capabilities and determine the mix of solutions that will ensure interoperability among a multitude of different agencies.

In addition, agencies should work with wireless service providers that can assemble resources quickly without prior notice, that are able to provide training as well as support during emergency situations and that possess the necessary equipment for when temporary signal augmentation is needed.

Finally, as communication response plans are developed and refined at the local, state and national levels, findings and lessons learned should be shared so that the information can be used to compile a "Best Practices" methodology that will help avoid past mistakes and lay out a blueprint for the most effective emergency response communications plan. HLR

Greg Meacham is vice president of federal programs and Homeland Security for Nextel Communications, and a 25-year veteran of the FBI with prior police experience. He has created the Nextel Emergency Response Team, which provides rapid deployment capability to support public safety in times of crisis by increasing their wireless capacity, providing coverage, or enhancing coordination by implementing a common communications platform. He has championed the use of satellite linking and the development and deployment of six Satellite Cell Sites on Light Trucks (SatCOLTs) to ensure Nextel has a completely self-contained capability to support public safety. Nextel is a member of the American Preparedness Campaign, an initiative of the Department of Homeland Security that seeks to increase emergency planning awareness.

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