One thing that many first responders learned about communications three years ago when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf states was that they didn't know how to use their reliable satellite phones.
This time, when hurricanes Gustav and Ike struck Texas and the Gulf states, first responders and public safety forces were prepared -- they had been testing their satellite phones and knew how to use them.
"During Katrina we heard reports of truckloads of phones that had been bought, but no one knew how to use them," said Liz De Castro, a spokeswoman at Iridium Satellite, in an interview Monday. "We've had a year-long company program for testing the systems."
She explained that first responders have been testing the satellite systems in recent months and intensified their tests in the days leading up to the hurricanes' approach to the United States.
There had been a doubling and tripling of Iridium's traffic in the areas where the hurricanes came ashore, De Castro said. As high winds and rising seas wrecked traditional cell phone and landline equipment, first responders and public-safety agencies increasingly turn to satellite phones, because they continue to operate.
Shipments of the phones spiked as the hurricanes bore in on Texas and the Gulf states. In the two weeks before the storms, Iridium shipped 5,000 phones to its service providers, and the majority of those went to the Gulf states.
"Iridium satellite phones and data equipment can be the only means of communications when a disaster strikes and land-based infrastructure is impacted," said Greg Ewert, Iridium's executive VP for global distribution, in a statement. "When first responders tell us they have positioned their Iridium equipment and services in the eye of the storm, we know we're doing our job."
Before Katrina, many satellite phones were in storage and hadn't been tested. Many phones failed for a simple reason -- their batteries hadn't been recharged. De Castro said the company-sponsored test program -- "it's similar to smoke alarm tests," she said -- helped prepare first responders and public-safety people for the new hurricanes.
Costing about $1,000, the satellite phones are more expensive than cell phones, but as smart cell phones rise in price and satellite phones drop in price, more people, including consumers, are acquiring satellite phones, particularly for use in remote areas. Usage costs are typically about $1 a minute.
Iridium's systems can operate with other emergency communications systems, including UHF and VHF radios.