Disaster workers left out in silence

Better communications equipment years away

Katrina's Wake

September 19, 2005|By Siobhan Gorman and Tom Bowman | Siobhan Gorman and Tom Bowman,Sun reporters

WASHINGTON -- With Hurricane Katrina exposing major communication failures among federal, state and local authorities, current and former officials say the country is still years away from implementing an effective crisis communication system.

The Department of Homeland Security, in a national emergency response plan completed in December 2004, directed a little-known Cold War-era office, the National Communications System, to "ensure" that federal officials could communicate with each other - and with state, local and industry leaders - in a crisis.

Though the federal government has so far earmarked about $350 million for state and local officials to buy communications equipment that allows responders from different agencies to speak to each other in a crisis, the problem has not been fixed.

"The unfortunate thing is a lot of people thought the issues had been sorted out already," said Paul Kurtz, a former White House communications specialist in the Clinton and Bush administrations.

President Bush is now demanding a national review of emergency preparedness in the nation's major cities. But if the response in the four years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is any indication, it's unclear whether those lessons will be learned anytime soon.

`They've as yet done nothing about the communications mess," said former Navy Secretary John Lehman, a member of the 9/11 Commission. In New York City, where hundreds of police and firefighters died in the 2001 terrorist attacks, the local fire and police departments still cannot speak by radio with each other in an emergency.

No standards

The system has no single point of supervision, nor is there a complete set of federal standards to guide cities' planning and purchases because several offices inside and outside of the Department of Homeland Security have different pots of money to dole out for communications equipment.

Additionally, department officials say there are laws that limit the federal government's ability to force states to adhere to federal standards.

David Boyd, who runs the Department of Homeland Security's office for interoperable communications, said it will be years before first responders across the country will be assured they can speak with their colleagues from other agencies in an emergency. "There is an element of frustration," he acknowledged.

"You know you need it. You needed it yesterday, but you know it isn't going to happen for some time. It's a frustration you have to learn to live with."

Boyd, who has been working on communications issues for the federal government since 1993, moved over to Homeland Security when his office was created in 2003.

"We've been able to move things further along in the last two years than all the previous history put together," he said. "But it's still a long road ahead of us."

The NCS "was supposed to be a FEMA command-and-control" office, allowing the emergency management agency to be in immediate contact with authorities in a disaster zone, said Frank Hoffman, a staff member of the Hart-Rudman Commission on terrorism. The commission, in its 2001 report, recommended that the NCS be made part of a new domestic security department.

The NCS was shifted from the Department of Defense to the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, but Congress never specifically ordered the NCS to assume control of all government communications, said Robert Liscouski, a former assistant secretary of Homeland Security.

The responsibility for crisis communications was splintered among several offices within Homeland Security and other parts of the federal government.

The office "is not responsible for ensuring that the local government has done what they need to do to have recovery capability" for communications, said Liscouski, who had responsibility for the NCS and its 107 employees.

Boyd said his office picks up where the NCS leaves off, but his office, which is one of several sources of communications money is largely working through the states.

"They are not concerned with communication at the agency level with the individual officer," Boyd said of the NCS. "That's where we get involved."

As a result, that job largely remained where it has always been: the responsibility of each of the 50 states and thousands of localities around the country.

When Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, the weakness of the arrangement quickly became apparent:

The commander of the Louisiana National Guard needed two days to assess the damage in his state, because he was unable to communicate with his own officers in the disaster zone.

A Mississippi National Guard colonel held the only satellite phone in Hancock County, an area of more than 500 square miles.

Emergency responders from Arkansas rushed into Louisiana to help, only to find they could not communicate with the local police and fire personnel.

No backup systems

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