When a Hurricane Hits

"I've got a 10-50."

What does this mean to your organization? A car crash? An officer needing assistance?

"I can't say enough about standards," says Morgan Wright, who was a presenter during the "After the Storm: Technology Lessons Learned from Hurricane Katrina" seminar at the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference in October 2006. "You couldn't live your life today the way you live it unless we had standards. You couldn't plug an appliance in your home."

The lessons learned from the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina boil down to one circumstance — the need for a standard, unified way of communicating, sharing data and disaster preparation.

"Standards create predictability," says Wright, the global industry solution manager ofjustice and public safety for Cisco. "And when you have predictability, you can now start planning. When you don't know how your system is going to respond or react, or have dissimilar, disparate systems, can you imagine what would happen — if two fire engines showed up to a scene and were not able to exchange hoses or air packs, or connect to a hydrant?"

What law enforcement officials nationwide can take from this experience is the need for standards, and a culture of preparedness — thinking and acting collaboratively before disaster strikes.

Communication catastrophe
"In all fairness, we went from a disaster to a catastrophe," says Wright. "Not a lot of things are built to survive catastrophes."

In a disaster such as Katrina, he says, the thing that needs to be established immediately is operational command and control. "You've got to have the ability to communicate and direct resources. When communications are lost, people don't know where to go, and lose visibility of the entire situation."

He compares this to a checker board. If a player is looking at the board from the side, versus top-down, he can see the black and red pieces, but not make a next move due to lack of information. "You start to go from a 3D, to a 2D view, ultimately to a one-dimensional view," he says. "You can't make decisions. There is no situational awareness."

During Katrina, with no ability to have a 3D view, when the federal government asked how it could help, the answer was "We don't know." Communications lines were down and data was not able to be collected.

The communications catastrophe hit when Katrina obliterated the traditional legacy point-solution technology in place in most locations along the coast. It was wireless — PTT radios, etc. — but still tied to a fixed infrastructure, such as a cell tower.

To communication industry professionals, "wireless" means something altogether different than it does to the consumer population — network-based. "The network has no concept of distance," says Wright. "One of the things we believe, and this has been our consistent industry position, is people have not taken enough advantage of the network. We believe Internet Protocol (IP)-centric disaster recovery is a much better model than trying to tie everything to trunked lines or legacy PTT networks."

Wright breaks public safety into five layers: headquarters, field headquarters, emergency communications, mobile incident command, and field personnel and vehicles, the largest of the group. The emergency communications layer, 911 call centers, was most affected by Katrina.

He says a lesson learned is the need for a change in thinking. Instead of applying individual technology solutions for each layer, it's important to start recognizing the concept of unifying the entire chain of command over one IP-based network. "If my dispatch center were to go down, I could have people in a mobile vehicle, school lunchroom or even public library turn a computer into a 911 call-taking station because they're on the network."

Just one example of the network assisting during Katrina is the Baton Rouge General Hospital. The facility was operating on power supplied by a backup generator, and had local phone service, but no long distance. Fortunately, a broadband Internet connection was live. Vonage in New Jersey donated the hardware as well as phone services for the hospital. A Radio Shack in Baton Rouge located all the necessary VoIP equipment to connect doctors to patient records, and communication with outside doctors, insurers, family members, etc.

Nine VoIP converters and Dell-donated, wireless-enabled laptops with the corresponding software installed allowed the hospital to set up a public exchange for communications and data sharing. "We don't care what type of radio you have, or voice device," says Wright. "It could be a Motorola, M/A-COM, Nokia, etc. All we do is take that voice transmission and convert it to IP, and it moves along the network just the way an e-mail would."

Proper planning, he says, starts today. "You may not have everything you need today, but have you planned to get what you need in the next five years?" asks Wright. "Are you buying technology that doesn't have planned obsolescence around it? Are you buying standards-based technology?"

Mapping a vision
Culture of preparedness. Or so Lew Nelson, also a presenter with Wright, calls it. This 30-year veteran of law enforcement believes in the power of data, and even more than that, the power of shared data.

"One of the first things that any agency wants to know is: How big is it?" says Nelson, of a disaster situation. "What are my opportunities to address this problem? How do I get my arms around it? How do I get that situational awareness that gives me an understanding?"

Katrina was definitely a lesson in geography, he explains. A friend of his called it "combat GIS."

Lesson One, he says, is there is very little preparedness on a broad scale for geospacial infrastructure. Each agency might have had its own information, but there was little or no data sharing occurring, or redundancy of data. "They had to engage in heroic efforts to get new computer systems, to find the data they'd lost, process it, model it, find applications to work, etc.," says Nelson, industry solutions department and law enforcement manager of ESRI.

Lesson Two: Initial Geographic Information Systems (GIS) response was very expensive because it was very fragmented, he explains. "Hundreds of people were engaged in geospacial work, some of them probably doing the same thing, and there were a lot of resource expenditures to recreate data and develop applications on the fly."

Lesson Three: Data sharing was extremely difficult. With so much data in machines underwater and without local backup, the acquisition of data took time. Due to a lack of shared standards and data models, many applications could not be shared between agencies. "At the same time," Nelson says, "there was a lack of sharing policies to give authority to quickly share data."

Lesson Four: Lack of integrated vision. "What I mean by an integrated vision is the lack of data models created a situation where there was no immediate capability between agencies to fuse dynamic data with other available or acquired data to provide a common operating picture."

Starting at the local level is a first step toward progressive data sharing efforts. Cities can share with counties, and up the ladder to states and federal agencies.

The need for standards here is as important as in the communication aspect. "You need to have a consistent, integrated, multi-participant shared accessible system," says Nelson. "Somebody has to take a look at the larger vision." Since Katrina, Nelson has seen governmental groups step up to the plate and initiate data sharing.

GIS was used for many purposes during Katrina and other disasters worldwide, such as 9/11, the tsunami and Pakistani earthquakes. Among these uses are search and rescue, basic dispatch, damage assessment, shelter and hospital location, vehicle routing, evacuation planning, debris removal, resource management, demographic analysis, public information, and more. "I have resources here and need to get them there," explains Nelson. "What roadways are open? What vehicles do I have to transport them? Who is affected? Where did they go?"

The size of the disaster area caused by Katrina would have made it the 12th largest state in the country. Once data became available it was there in large quantity but frequently with little metadata (or data about the data) to make it immediately useful. "Thousands of maps were created in the wake of Katrina, with the task to put these maps and the attendant information in the hands of first responders as well as decision makers in response centers throughout the country," Nelson notes.

Think ahead
"What Katrina does is make us think of the unthinkable," says John Facella, another presenter for the IACP session, and director of public safety markets for M/A-COM. "What happens if nothing works, the electricity is down, you can't get fuel or the roads are flooded?"

An audit of an agency's communications system is essential, he says. "Determine if there are vulnerabilities or points of failure, then see if you can mitigate those by doing other things."

New Orleans, he says, had a very high degree of reliability and redundancy built into its system. Police departments had a dispatch facility at a different location from the fire and EMS groups. The breech of the levees and extensive flooding, he explains, caused these facilities to be obliterated. "It's good to have an alternative dispatch facility, but it needs to be in a place not immediately vulnerable to the same things the first place is," Facella explains.

The logistics behind the communications is what is most important. Responders need to be able to talk about the big questions regarding resources, both in capital and manpower. 911 answering points have to have food, water and other basic survival capabilities. Then, shift changes need to occur, even in the most isolated areas.

"The New Orleans Police Department realized after a while they needed to relieve the ranking officers because they were working 18 hours a day, and for days and days straight," says Facella. These officers also had family who had been relocated, lost everything and needed assistance. M/A-COM also started rotating its responders to the area. Exhaustion had hit hard, mentally and physically.

"There's so much devastation," he notes. "What you're doing seems to be just a drop in the bucket. You need to give staff a chance to recover and take care of personal business." A suggestion he gives is to rely on retired force members in the area. They can be used as a "health and welfare" group for the families of officers working in the disaster area. Most keep their pistol permits and could provide safety to families being preyed on by criminals. Katrina saw the suicide of an officer who succumbed to the dual strain of public and private family responsibilities. This was just one tragedy among a catastrophe of unforeseen proportions.

The other side is taking care of those responding from other areas to assist. It's essential they are self sufficient, with enough food and water to last the duration. "You can't bring in a whole bunch of guys and gals, and say, 'OK, where's the hotel and food line?' " says Facella.

"You can have all the great first response, but now you've got all the other issues — feeding, clothing, watering, etc.," says Nelson.

He remembers a purchasing officer in Santa Cruz, California, who had put the time and effort in before the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, securing resources in the event of such a situation. When the "earthquake went down," says Nelson, "the city was in a really good position to assist its personnel and citizens."

For the hurricane relief efforts, M/A-COM provided responders operating in New Orleans extra walkie-talkies from the New Orleans' system. This system, he explains, was designed with a lot of excess capacity due to events such as Mardi Gras. "They're kind of used to bringing in outsiders and giving them a radio."

Interoperability can be accomplished in various ways, Facella notes. "Among New Orleans first responder agencies, they shared the same system so it was relatively easy and cost effective," he explains. "In addition, the New Orleans system had more than 10 interoperability links to neighboring parish and state systems on different frequencies and vendor protocols. The city also had a backup mutual aid repeater system."

A military expression he uses is, "The commander in the field commands no one but his desk if he doesn't have radio communication."

"You saw that in the dramatic relief during Katrina where communication systems failed," says Facella.

Pushing policy
No solution is able to be implemented until there is an establishment of governance and policy, explains Wright.

To begin, an agency must define what it wants to do. "Define your outcomes first," he says. Second, can it be done? And then, how?

Systems were originally built "local," meaning for the immediate vicinity. Criminals have become very mobile, explains Wright, thus the ability for mobile communications is necessary.

As a trooper, all he carried was a Smith & Wesson 686, pair of handcuffs and two ammo dumps. "Batman was better equipped than I was," Wright jokes.

Communications consisted of him calling dispatch, who then called the police department on a telephone, dispatched an officer for assistance, who radioed to the police dispatcher, who phoned his dispatcher, who radioed him. "Does that seem foolish?" Wright comments. "How big does the decision-making loop get when we have to enter all these other people into the process?"

The same lesson still can be applied today. Though technology has changed, the loop is still large. Policy issues, as well as behavioral issues can be addressed and turned in a more proactive direction.

"You can create mission-critical, highly resilient, available networks with just proper design," he explains. "People are starting to get the message. Agencies are realizing they can still continue to buy what they need, leverage existing investments in equipment and infrastructure, and still be able to interoperate with others using a standards-based approach."

"The fact of it is, and I used to tell my department — the public believes you're already doing this," says Nelson. "And if you're not, they're going to ask why you didn't. Our first responsibility is to provide for the safety and security of our communities."