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Disaster Communications

Washington, DC Oct. 24th, 2006 ---- Recently a Communications Officer of a major US City asked about the current state of political leadership in communications after a disaster, natural, man made or terrorist. When we had finished rolling around laughing we realized that we could be victims of the incompetence of our political leaders.

Twenty five years ago I sat in with political and government leaders in the UK to evaluate the emergency communications capabilities after a nuclear attack. The engineer from the British Telecom monopoly proudly announced that their microwave towers could withstand blasts of 10 megatons without shifting. They would survive, striding across the land. "What about the Antennas", I asked. "Oh they would be shredded of course, or fried in the EMP, by the way that is classified information." Sadly our monopoly friend didn't see the flaw in plans. Without antennas any radio system is useless.

At the same meeting I spoke on Interoperability when different services and organizations can communicate with each other by radio. For sea rescues the aircraft were on AM and the ships were on FM, with widely different frequencies. The regulators were aghast, marine frequencies are for ships, not aircraft, and aviation frequencies were not designed for ships!

Fast forward to the months leading up to 9/11. I criticized New York for senseless planning in locating their emergency communications and management center half way up a major terrorist target, unable to be defended, with no back up communications infrastructure. Have we not learned anything from a century of wars fought with technology. Mayor Guilliani and his political cronies knew better, and you saw the results. Of course Guilliani's bad planning was excused because he appeared first at the Twin Towers site. Had the firemen and police the right communications inter operability there would not have been so many senseless casualties.

Katrina showed us how far the politicians have come in developing a disaster communications infrastructure to protect and serve the people. Most of the police had celllphones, and as I predicted twenty five years ago, antenna towers without antennas are only decoration. The hurricane blew off many antennas, and the failure of back up power killed many more. In Y2K we hammered home the fact that emergency power is designed for hours interruption, and even back up generators have finite limits.

And what of private industry? I was appalled at the level of planning for disaster recovery and disaster communications, even with the Fortune 500 companies. Many have young eager graduates with a string of "Certified" letters after their names, with absolutely no idea of operating in a survival mode. In the good old days before the Bush-induced War on Terror made us the primary target, there was little to fear about crippling the critical communications infrastructure of the United States, or Europe. Today that will be just one step in the escalating War of Terror, never envisaged by the politicians and their advisers when they created this war.

At one briefing session a major Bank confided in me that they planned to use Radio Amateurs to be the back up communications infrastructure. They had been given a really smart presentation of the half million or so people with ham radios who already do a great job reporting the actual situation in the immediate aftermath of disasters. Nobody had asked if these amateurs had generators, batteries or even solar power. All it turned out later, used the city power supply.

Bush and his cronies weathered Hurricane Katrina, and Hurricane Rita without being impeached. The people of the Gulf Coast didn't. Driving around New Orleans a few weeks ago was like a movie of the aftermath of a nuclear strike. The communications and disaster recovery efforts of the Governments, local, State and Federal had failed. This week Homeland Security Guru Chertoff came out and finally said that Americans should take responsibility for their own survival, and not look to government assistance for at least 72 hours. Now if you are poor, black and living in New Orleans, you will still be looking after yourself over a year later.

From the communications standpointNew Orleans was an easy area to cover. The Big Easy is flat, with high rise buildings free from flooding, and easily accessible from the Mississippi. But the same politicians who brag about "Shock and Awe" in destroying a nations communications networks, hadn't the first clue about having a city wide system operational in hours.

Now consider the disaster in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Miami, New York all targets for Hurricanes, Earthquakes and terrorists. Add to those every potential terrorist target and you can see the catastrophe awaiting us.

Have a look at your own disaster communication plans, and when the political candidates are talking about Abortion, Flag Burning and Gay Marriage ask them about Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Floods and Disaster planning. Bet they can't answer, because they haven't even considered your safety and survival. As Chertoff says, "It's your responsibility".



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