Emergency crew excels in gulf

Mobile communications unit, county staff helped Katrina victims


The phone and electric lines were down. The towers that relay cell phone calls were not working. In the days after Hurricane Katrina struck, portions of the Gulf Coast were isolated from the rest of the world.

The situation seemed like a perfect test for Anne Arundel County's new Mobile Command and Control Unit. Responding last month to one of the Louisiana communities hardest hit by Katrina, Jefferson Parish, 10 county fire personnel were among a group that took the unit there and performed disaster relief -- not with ladders and hoses, but with laptops and digital phones.

At a news conference Monday to welcome back the county personnel who spent two weeks coordinating Maryland's relief efforts, County Executive Janet S. Owens hailed the performance of the $820,000 portable communications truck, paid for entirely by the state's share of homeland security funds, calling it a vital tool for disaster response.

"It has proved itself and exceeded expectations. ... This vehicle has helped us save lives," Owens said while standing in front of the 27-ton truck outside the county fire headquarters in Millersville.

The 40-foot vehicle, designed and built by Annapolis-based communications company ARINC, provided for two weeks a communications link for Louisiana authorities, the Maryland National Guard and a contingent of more than 100 doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians from Maryland.

It enabled various agencies to talk to one another through different media, such as satellite phones, cell phones and walkie-talkies. A built-in generator kept the unit up and running.

Fire Chief Ronald D. Blackwell had been unsure how the portable emergency truck, which was unveiled in August, would perform. He also worried about how well his crew would fare in the foul conditions of Jefferson Parish, just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, largely isolated in an unfamiliar area. Maryland focused its relief efforts on the parish.

But through the unit's communications network, Louisiana authorities were able to direct Maryland ambulances to the injured, providing medical support for more than 6,000 people, Blackwell said.

"I didn't think it would be this good," the chief said of the vehicle.

In the days after the Category 4 hurricane made landfall Aug. 29, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent help requests to the states, including one to the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, which approved the deployment of the Anne Arundel personnel and the command unit.

Baltimore City and Montgomery and Howard counties were among the other jurisdictions that sent teams of fire personnel to the Gulf Coast. FEMA will fully reimburse expenses for outside assistance, and Anne Arundel officials said they will finalize their bill tomorrow.

The Anne Arundel crew left Sept. 5 -- a week after Katrina made landfall -- and drove 21 hours nonstop to reach Jefferson Parish. The group included four other county employees and five private contractors.

Kathleen Grote, a county firefighter and paramedic, said she and her colleagues were prepared to respond to distress calls, but in the wake of what was probably the worst natural disaster to hit the United States, the Anne Arundel personnel were constantly juggling numerous and simultaneous emergency responses, and reporting their progress to emergency officials in Maryland.

"We were not prepared that it was happening at one time everywhere," Grote said.

County firefighters had been pressing to join the national response to the disaster-relief efforts in the Gulf Coast, and Owens said Monday they responded well. The firefighters worked 18-hour shifts before arriving back in Millersville on Sept. 22.

"I am so proud of these men and women, who left their own families to help other families during a time a crisis," the county executive said.

Owens and fire officials said they would not hesitate to deploy teams to future disasters across the country.

"We had an excellent team," Grote said. "I'm glad that others got to see us shine."


Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

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