Storemski says the biggest challenge in Houston now, as in many large cities, is complying with federal guidelines for interoperable communications systems. "We have published a Request For Information (RFI) to build a new radio system, converting from the present UHF to the 700 to 800 MHz range," he says. "It could cost more than $100 million to develop."
Complicating issues is the misconception that first responders can't talk to each other when necessary. That simply isn't true, says Storemski. "We employ gateways when necessary and we are able to communicate effectively," he says. "Frankly, there are times when it is not desirable for everyone to be talking and listening. We handle each situation separately, and if necessary, we can all communicate at the same time. Command staff is always in communication with each other."
Furthermore, rural areas have different needs than urban centers. "What works here in Houston may not work well at all outside the city — one size does not fit all," Storemski says. "The optimum level of radio interoperability, according to the DHS SafeCom project, is achieved by shared systems. We will probably never reach that level of interoperability in the state of Texas given the fact that so many jurisdictions use VHF and UHF frequencies, nor is it necessary. It is however practical and feasible regionally within the state."
Recently, Houston participated in a mandatory communications exercise addressing redundancy and interoperability. "The exercise was successful, and we were able to perform all the required operations in the allotted time," he continues.
On a more practical note, Storemski wishes the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would require all vendors to make their radio equipment interoperable. "It used to be that you could buy anyone's radio equipment and talk on it," he says. "Now it seems to be vendor specific, and that locks you into subsequent purchases from the same vendor, even though their cost may be higher than others. P25 (the P25 suite of standards involves digital Land Mobile Radio (LMR) services for public safety entities) almost gets you there, but not quite."More changes to come
In September 2005, Houston's hotels were at maximum capacity from Hurricane Katrina's evacuees, when three weeks later, Hurricane Rita, another Category 5 storm, appeared headed directly for the Houston Ship Channel.
Although a full-scale evacuation of Houston was not indicated, many residents, terrified over the catastrophic aftermath of Katrina, chose to leave town. What transpired in approximately 36 hours was a nearly complete evacuation of Houston's metro area.
"I suspect that too many people left the city not because they feared the danger associated with the hurricane, but because they did not want to deal with the inconvenience of power outages and other consequences associated with the aftermath of a hurricane," says Storemski.
Houston is 50 miles inland so Galveston and other affected coastal areas must have the opportunity to evacuate first. Residents living inland in areas not subject to the storm surge are expected to make their own decision to evacuate. "Certainly, if one's home or dwelling is not capable of withstanding hurricane-force winds, they need to move to a more secure structure," says Storemski. "But that does not necessarily mean leaving town."
New technology is on the way to reduce some of the anxiety and fear encountered in these situations. "We purchased new software to more accurately predict wind speeds in each zip code area of the city," Storemski explains. "Along with meteorologists, we will be able to deliver more detailed information to Houston residents so they will be able to make more informed decisions."
As the fourth largest metro area in the nation with the 10th largest seaport, Houston has long been on the frontlines of protecting the nation's economic infrastructure. The efforts to create a fusion center, beef up port security, add communications interoperability and enhance first response technology enables the city to keep its citizens safe from disaster — all day, every day.