Hurricane-Prone States Face Big Communication Problems This Storm Season

The memory of Hurricane Katrina isn't even a year old, but Louisiana and other states still struggle with radio-controlled emergency communications systems that don't interoperate.
Tropical Storm Alberto was a relatively mild opener for the 2006 storm season, downing some trees and power lines in northern Florida earlier this month. But with the likelihood of more destructive storms in the coming weeks, it's important for vulnerable regions to have solid communications plans in place. Easier said than done.

First responders can expect more turbulence this hurricane season

First responders can expect more turbulence this hurricane season

Photo courtesy of NOAA
The lack of interoperable communications systems remains a big problem, just as it was during last year's Hurricane Katrina disaster. First responders to hurricanes and other disasters throughout the country typically are equipped with handheld devices that use radio frequencies for communicating. But state and local agencies often use different radio frequencies, creating communication roadblocks. Some states are working toward common communications platforms, but funding problems are slowing efforts.

"Last year, we had a lot of communication issues," says Rizwan Ahmed, CIO of the state of Louisiana. That's a huge understatement. During infamously brutal Katrina, the inability of state-level first responders to communicate with local emergency personnel was just one of the problems. Gov. Kathleen Blanco in January created an executive committee that's working to establish an interoperable communications system, and there have been improvements since last year, but there's still much to do. Plans for a third data center to serve as a backup in northern Louisiana also are dragging because of poor funding. "Individual agencies have insufficient budgets, and traditionally disaster preparedness is where they've cut down money," Ahmed says.

He's not the only concerned state CIO. In a survey of 350 attendees of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers conference earlier this month, conducted by conference organizers Accenture and AT&T, 54% disagreed and 15% strongly disagreed with the statement that state and local governments are better prepared for major disasters since Hurricane Katrina. The survey finds that 46% of states have a disaster recovery plan in place to handle catastrophic events, and 40% have one in the works.

After Hurricane Floyd destroyed whole towns in North Carolina and killed 35 people in 1999, the state started a program called Voice Interoperability Plan for Emergency Responders to get a single 800-MHz interoperable radio system up and running statewide. The program calls for first responders to use the same terms and represent data the same way. But most communities, concerned with reliability and cost, have dropped out of the program.

South Carolina deployed an 800-MHz system called Palmetto two years ago. CIO Jim Bryant proudly notes that the First Response Coalition, a nonprofit organization that educates the public about first-responder systems, praised the state's emergency communications in an April report on interoperable communication in eight storm-prone states. But its system isn't perfect. "While South Carolina appears to have established a robust, statewide emergency communications network, it is available only to state agencies, or those local communities that have the financial resources to upgrade to the Palmetto 800 system," the report says. Local and state responders also communicate using a Web-based emergency operations center.

Alabama has a number of preprogrammed radios activated for disasters and available to certain groups, but the First Response Coalition report calls its efforts toward interoperability "largely uncoordinated." Louisiana plans to replace its outdated radios, and none too soon: Motorola will no longer offer tech support for them at the end of the year, according to the report.

But accountability could be as much of a factor as lack of funding in keeping citizens safe. Many states do get federal funding, but the First Response Coalition report cautions that states aren't required to show how they spend funds for interoperability projects, making it difficult for an outside organization to assess whether the money is being spent effectively. So while more money will help, it's going to take organized efforts to funnel those funds into workable plans to improve severe weather communications.

Editor's Choice
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Carrie Pallardy, Contributing Reporter
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
Astrid Gobardhan, Data Privacy Officer, VFS Global
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing