When a Hurricane Hits

Lessons from Katrina

"I've got a 10-50."

What does this mean to your organization? A car crash? An officer needing assistance?

"I can't say enough about standards," says Morgan Wright, who was a presenter during the "After the Storm: Technology Lessons Learned from Hurricane Katrina" seminar at the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference in October 2006. "You couldn't live your life today the way you live it unless we had standards. You couldn't plug an appliance in your home."

The lessons learned from the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina boil down to one circumstance — the need for a standard, unified way of communicating, sharing data and disaster preparation.

"Standards create predictability," says Wright, the global industry solution manager ofjustice and public safety for Cisco. "And when you have predictability, you can now start planning. When you don't know how your system is going to respond or react, or have dissimilar, disparate systems, can you imagine what would happen — if two fire engines showed up to a scene and were not able to exchange hoses or air packs, or connect to a hydrant?"

What law enforcement officials nationwide can take from this experience is the need for standards, and a culture of preparedness — thinking and acting collaboratively before disaster strikes.

Communication catastrophe
"In all fairness, we went from a disaster to a catastrophe," says Wright. "Not a lot of things are built to survive catastrophes."

In a disaster such as Katrina, he says, the thing that needs to be established immediately is operational command and control. "You've got to have the ability to communicate and direct resources. When communications are lost, people don't know where to go, and lose visibility of the entire situation."

He compares this to a checker board. If a player is looking at the board from the side, versus top-down, he can see the black and red pieces, but not make a next move due to lack of information. "You start to go from a 3D, to a 2D view, ultimately to a one-dimensional view," he says. "You can't make decisions. There is no situational awareness."

During Katrina, with no ability to have a 3D view, when the federal government asked how it could help, the answer was "We don't know." Communications lines were down and data was not able to be collected.

The communications catastrophe hit when Katrina obliterated the traditional legacy point-solution technology in place in most locations along the coast. It was wireless — PTT radios, etc. — but still tied to a fixed infrastructure, such as a cell tower.

To communication industry professionals, "wireless" means something altogether different than it does to the consumer population — network-based. "The network has no concept of distance," says Wright. "One of the things we believe, and this has been our consistent industry position, is people have not taken enough advantage of the network. We believe Internet Protocol (IP)-centric disaster recovery is a much better model than trying to tie everything to trunked lines or legacy PTT networks."

Wright breaks public safety into five layers: headquarters, field headquarters, emergency communications, mobile incident command, and field personnel and vehicles, the largest of the group. The emergency communications layer, 911 call centers, was most affected by Katrina.

He says a lesson learned is the need for a change in thinking. Instead of applying individual technology solutions for each layer, it's important to start recognizing the concept of unifying the entire chain of command over one IP-based network. "If my dispatch center were to go down, I could have people in a mobile vehicle, school lunchroom or even public library turn a computer into a 911 call-taking station because they're on the network."

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