Industry, Government Partnerships Key to Disaster Response

April 23, 2009
By Henry Kenyon

CHICAGO - Day two of the National Conference on Emergency Communications demonstrated that, as hoped, networking is the norm for this event. The chatter from first responder organization representatives from throughout the United States before the morning break-out sessions was nearly deafening.

Jeffrey Cohen, acting deputy chief, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, FCC, led one of five break-out sessions, "Industry Partners: Working Effectively with Industry Partners in Operational Response." Cohen, along with Robert Desiato, director, network disaster recovery, AT&T, and Jerry McConnell, operations manager, Motorola, described the processes and technologies their respective organizations have put into place for disaster response.

Cohen spoke about the FCC's Project Roll Call, a vehicle-mounted spectrum analyzer that assesses the number of communications licensees in an area prior to a disaster. The vehicle then returns to the area after the event to determine who is missing so communications can be restored. In addition, the FCC is reaching out to a variety of organizations in the private sector, such as emergency operations centers, broadcasters and trauma centers, to determine what they need to prepare for emergencies. Also, the FCC has created the Disaster Information Reporting System, which is a voluntary Web-based program that collects information from communications providers.

The 700 megahertz spectrum was a topic of great interest to many in the audience. Of the newly available spectrum, which is the result of the television analog-to-digital conversion, 36 megahertz will be allocated to the private sector and 24 megahertz to public safety support.

Desiato explained that AT&T carries more than 17,000 terabytes of data daily. Reliability is based on survivability, so the equipment and its emergency vehicles are stored in six unmarked warehouses, five in the U.S. and one in Europe. Exercises and training take place four to five times annually; one exercise is scheduled to take place in the Washington, D.C., area in mid July.

One of the lessons AT&T learned on September 11, 2001, was a need for a hazardous material (HAZMAT) capability. As a result, the company created its own HAZMAT teams that are trained along and with local emergency responders. The terrorists attacks also revealed the company's need for "meet points." When air travel was not possible immediately following September 11, many AT&T personnel drove their own vehicles across the country to the terrorist attack sites. Now, they congregate at central points then caravan into the disaster area. "Every time we go through an event, we learn something," Desiato said.

McConnell explained that Motorola has ramped up its emergency response capabilities during the past five years. In the case of a catastrophe, Motorola will respond to the needs of customers and noncustomers alike, he stated.

To improve its disaster response processes, the company brought together its business managers to develop plans. The processes were then turned over to the personnel responsible for executing the plan for further development. Response processes to restore communications or improve communications now have been documented and practice continues.

All three presenters talked about how cooperation between the private and public sectors can be improved. Desiato related the need for standard procedures to gain access to disaster areas. For example, AT&T may have federal permission to enter an area, but local authorities, who are unaware that permission has been granted, stop the technicians from entering an area. McConnell noted that both large and small government agencies are disjointed in their processes and programs. Coordination in this area is needed, he stated. Cohen explained that on a regular basis the FCC is examining how to improve communications with vendors.

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