Balto. focuses on its disaster communications

Radio failure on trip to La. revealed flaws

Officials study Katrina response

Loss of contact unlikely in emergency, officials say

September 14, 2005|By Greg Barrett | Greg Barrett,SUN STAFF

No sooner had a 46-truck convoy of Baltimore first-responders and equipment left for Louisiana on Sunday than it received an education in emergency communications: Even state-of-the-art systems can fail.

Heading south on Interstate 81, the city's new 800-megahertz radios did not always work long-range because the national network of radio towers was not switched on or available everywhere.

"That surprised us; they were supposed to work across state lines," said Mayor Martin O'Malley. "That's something we're going to have to revisit."

Long before New Orleans was battered and flooded, emergency management officials suspected that a major hurricane - category 3, 4 or 5 - could disrupt a city's complex system of communications. But until emergency preparations are tested under fire - or on highways outside of state lines - there are unknowns, O'Malley said.

It's why officials are working on setting up backup systems and sophisticated equipment, and why New Orleans is now a lab for emergency managers. In the weeks and months ahead, Maryland officials plan to analyze reports about the botched emergency response there for ideas on how best to safeguard their cities against natural disaster as well as terrorist attack.

During Hurricane Katrina's powerful assault and the subsequent flooding, New Orleans failed to communicate. There were reports of cell towers falling, land lines failing, satellite phones losing their charge and emergency radios so congested with traffic that first responders talked over one another.

Could such a failure occur in Baltimore? Even with the recent radio network glitch, officials say probably not.

When Tropical Storm Isabel hit the Baltimore area two years ago, parts of the city flooded and the city's emergency communication hub downtown lost power. But for two days, the city's first-responders and dispatchers communicated seamlessly using backup generators, said Baltimore chief information officer Elliott Schlanger.

Should a Katrina-like storm wreck Baltimore, the city has plans. There are backup generators for the backup generators and layers of redundancy in the communication system, officials say.

Like every major jurisdiction in Maryland, Baltimore has used state and federal homeland security grants to enhance its emergency-response training and equipment. Its digital radio system, a multimillion-dollar project initiated in 1997, has been updated and can operate with other Maryland jurisdictions and agencies.

After Sunday's convoy arrived in New Orleans, the system worked as it was supposed to, said Kristen Mahoney, chief of technical services for the Baltimore Police Department.

En route, the convoy used cell phones and BlackBerries - purchased as an upgrade after Sept. 11, 2001 - to communicate long-distance.

If an apocalyptic event like a significant terrorist attack destroyed Baltimore's nine fiber-optic radio towers, officials say the city's new radio system could be used in a "talk-around" mode. This allows first-responders in various city agencies to communicate on a limited number of channels.

In New Orleans, radio channels used in this manner became clogged with chatter, according to various reports. But Baltimore has rehearsed this scenario successfully in various terrorism drills, Schlanger said.

Also, like Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties and other large Maryland municipalities, Baltimore has a mobile communications center outfitted with a satellite dish, a cellular network and computer capabilities. Like other jurisdictions, it sent its truck south to help after Katrina hit.

When Anne Arundel County's new $820,000 communications truck pulled up to an abandoned hospital in Gretna, La., on Sept. 6, first-responders already there were communicating the old-fashioned way - walking up to each other.

After parking the 40-foot truck next to the hospital, a technician climbed onto the truck's roof and screwed 24 radio antennas to it. Someone else fired up an onboard generator. Suddenly, first-responders in the area could receive and send radio transmissions.

Next, the crew extended the truck's satellite dish and established a connection. Now the truck had an intranet connection and could accept and make calls to cell phones.

Also, the truck's communication software was able to link up the workforce at Gretna - 17 agencies from five states - despite using noncompatible radios and cellular phones, said Steve Morgan, an engineer who works for ARINC, the Annapolis-based company that developed the software for the truck.

In the old days, when first-responders from multiple jurisdictions came together, they would swap radios, said Marvin Ingram, a senior director with ARINC.

In Maryland, several contingency plans provide communication safeguards, said John W. Droneburg III, director of the state emergency management agency. Among them are radios rechargeable by an automobile and the "almost cataclysmic-proof" satellite phone.

Although satellite phones are too expensive to distribute en masse to first-responders, they can serve as a bridge of communication until redundancies are established.

But no one in Maryland expects to handle a total collapse such as the one in New Orleans.

"The confluence of events that occurred is just the worse possible case of everything," Schlanger said. "No power infrastructure. The cell towers are down. Overhead utilities like poles and lines were out. If there were any underground utilities they were flooded out. The fuel needed for backup generators was not available.

"I cannot think of any more scenarios being thrown at a city. ... We'll be learning from this one for a long time."

Sun staff writer Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

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