Government employees rely so heavily on communications systems that many assume they will be available whenever they need them, even in an emergency. However, that may not be the case if someone has not planned for the possibility that those systems may fail. Agencies at all levels must evaluate their communications services and the infrastructure supporting critical operations to ensure they can withstand extreme events. In addition, they need plans and assets in place to continue operations if infrastructure fails in a disaster.
In “The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned,” a report published in February 2006, the federal government recognized that sufficient communications plans were not in place to respond adequately to Hurricane Katrina. The report also pointed out that “federal, state and local governments have not yet completed a comprehensive strategy to improve operability and interoperability to meet the needs of emergency responders.” As a result of the report, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created the Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) within the department’s National Protection and Programs Directorate to guide DHS policies, programs and activities promoting emergency response communications. Its mission is to help emergency responders and government officials continue to communicate in disasters, and attain interoperable and operable emergency communications nationwide.
Local governments can approach the challenge by ensuring that systems will operate in emergencies in several ways. One strategy is to weave together voice and data technologies to create concentric rings of telecommunications alternatives that fully integrate wireless and wireline technologies. The core components of the strategy should focus on:
Restoration: Because traditional wireline-supported systems can take weeks or months to restore, agencies should incorporate wireless voice and data infrastructure that can be restored more rapidly.
Diversity: Agencies should consider alternatives for redundant communications that provide service using terrestrial and satellite wireless systems.
Security: Wireless devices and applications are available with extremely high levels of information security that meet and exceed IT security standards, including NIST, NSA, HIPPA and Sarbanes/Oxley.
Critical services: When managing an event, agencies rely on their disaster recovery, emergency management and continuity of operations planning policies to respond. A host of new data applications are available to support continuity operations, including automated employee call-out lists, business continuity plan distribution and reporting.
As disasters evolve, government agencies need communications tools that can meet changing situations. For example, Hurricane Katrina was actually two disasters: the first was the hurricane, the second was the flooding that resulted from the levee breaches. There, agencies at all levels were dealing with different situations that required different response capabilities and would have benefited from a stable communications infrastructure. By planning for potential failures, local governments can be better equipped to coordinate their response.
The author is director of the Sprint Nextel Emergency Response Team (ERT) in Sterling, Va.