Look No Farther Than Your Own Backyard

November 2005
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

The recent disasters caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the GulfCoast of the United States laid bare many long-overlooked facts. Among them is the importance of local communications interoperability. From individuals at home to emergency responders operating on a national scale, communications connectivity is vital during a crisis. The communications shortcomings experienced during that series of disasters contributed to the difficulties faced by the populace.

However, a parallel already exists for that communications environment: military tactical communications. The two hurricanes gave us an up close and personal view of the requirements for tactical communications. With the loss of both local area and long-haul connectivity, coordination efforts to save lives, evacuate citizens, secure property and respond where most needed were severely degraded. The military has faced that challenge many times, and its actions can serve as a template for future domestic disaster response.

We watched the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Red Cross and ultimately the U.S. Defense Department bring their tools to bear to establish tactical communications in the disaster area. The lessons learned were not unlike what our Soldiers and Marines have been telling us for years: We need standards—technology standards, protocol standards, policy standards—and, above all, we need leadership.

Without standards and leadership, it would take weeks to establish military tactical communications. That would be unacceptable in combat, and it should not be accepted after a natural disaster. In the hurricane disaster zone, tactical communications were required to provide support quickly for those whose lives were disrupted by the storm. However, it took much too long for those who needed help.

As with all goals, defining is easier than achieving. But we have a military model on which to base our approach. First, we need standards that allow first responders to exchange voice and data with state and federal officials.

Over the years, SIGNAL Magazine has described standards focusing primarily on technology. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman offers some interesting ideas on standards in his book The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. He offers that “common standards create a flatter, more level playing field.” That level playing field is necessary when coalition forces enter a theater as well as after a hurricane when infrastructure is gone, people are in need, and tactical communications are required sooner rather than later. Certainly, a more level playing field was required to support those along the GulfCoast.

Second, leadership needs to be well-defined. When all leaders think that they are in charge, tactical communication networks are overloaded. 

And, the issue is not which government entity or official assumes leadership. What is needed is an established leadership plan or philosophy that has been tested in exercises and can be stood up on the first day of a disaster relief effort. This unified leadership is necessary to establish effective communications among diverse entities, as military tactical communications have shown in operational environments.

A third item is one that is very familiar to military personnel: training and exercises. In the wake of Katrina and Rita, debate ensued as to whether authorities had a plan for a GulfCoast hurricane. Former general and president Dwight David Eisenhower once offered that “a plan is nothing; planning is everything.” A plan that is not tested and fine-tuned in exercises cannot provide much support, whether on a battlefield or in a domestic disaster area.

The military knows well the value of exercises. When SIGNAL Magazine covered the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division in the Iraq War, it noted how the 501st Signal Battalion was able to draw on experiences gleaned in U.S. exercises to create a multifaceted communications network in the desert. The then-commander of the battalion, Lt. Col. Michelle Walla, USA, explained that “you can’t simulate a dial tone.” Her troops and technicians had developed real-world experience in building a communications network from the ground up through the U.S. exercises, and they transferred that expertise to the greater Arabian desert. Disaster communicators need to move beyond designs or plans and hold the emergency responders’ equivalent of live-fire exercises in communications.

Whether you are talking about moving into Baghdad or moving into the devastated GulfCoast area, the local infrastructure is gone. What you bring is what you have. And, what you bring will be the backbone of what will be used to support the public. No one can depend on the previous local infrastructure in a stricken area to support communications.

The Baghdad analogy goes further. Introduce coalition forces into a military mix, and the situation even more closely resembles the interoperability challenges facing local, state and federal emergency responders. Coalition forces bring different technologies and approaches into theater just as nonlocal domestic government and nongovernmental organizations do in a crisis.

So the template exists for creating effective emergency response communications. Establishing emergency communications rapidly on the heels of a domestic catastrophe requires that authorities develop a plan that is rehearsed before disaster strikes—just as the military does. The military already has shown the way. Let us learn rather than reinvent.