Communications breakdown

As the Katrina disaster unfolded, many emergency responders had no way to talk to each other. Why were they so unprepared?

Published September 10, 2005 1:23AM (EDT)

Hurricane Katrina was the first big test of U.S. emergency disaster management in the post-9/11 era. Though the murky waters are still receding, it's already clear that at least one key lesson from that day four years ago went unheeded.

In addition to the heroism shown by police and firefighters at Ground Zero on Sept. 11, 2001, there were waves of confusion and miscommunication. Sometimes there was no communication at all when it was needed the most. The 9/11 Commission documented in its historic report from July 2004 how bungled communication in the disaster zone might have prevented some firefighters from getting a critical message that day: to evacuate the North Tower, after the South Tower had already pancaked in lower Manhattan.

A main radio channel used by the firefighters "was simply overwhelmed by the number of units attempting to communicate on it," the commission wrote. "As many people tried to speak at once, their transmissions overlapped and often became indecipherable." Other firefighters were simply using the wrong radio channel or lacked functioning radios altogether. The commission found that these problems were a "contributing factor" in the deaths of an unknown number of firefighters, and that botched communication between the police and fire departments may have also contributed.

The lesson was that first responders in a unit -- and across departments -- must be able to talk to each other in unforeseen or even unbelievable circumstances. The system hadn't worked in New York. Four years later, it didn't work in New Orleans.

Though the scope of the communications meltdown in Katrina's aftermath remains unclear, anecdotal reports show that it may have helped turn already chaotic rescue operations in New Orleans into a bungled mess. The causes are also still uncertain, though devastation of the city's infrastructure surely contributed. But the information blackout clearly blinded local officials, and appears to have also affected military troops who arrived later.

During the first, darkest days after the storm, security operations were left almost entirely to the local police department. And New Orleans Police Superintendent Eddie Compass said in a news conference Aug. 29 that his officers worked during that period with no operating communications systems at all -- a problem he described as nearly as significant as running out of ammunition.

The Miami Herald described the city as "paralyzed by poor communications" on Aug. 31. "Fire officials had one channel for 800 people to communicate with," the paper reported.

The problem spilled over to thousands of National Guard troops operating in the city. The Washington Post on Tuesday described the "massive military effort" in New Orleans as "severely disjointed and hampered by a lack of basic communication between units," according to officers. "Ground commanders for New Orleans have been functioning without the ability to track the location of some units reporting to them -- something unheard of in Iraq." The article describes soldiers apprehending two possible looters, "but because they had no radio communication with the New Orleans police, they had to flag down a passing patrol car to hand over the two men."

Ironically, the technology that makes most day-to-day emergency-response activities run smoothly can turn into an Achilles' heel in a disaster. Many emergency responders continue to assume that their sophisticated communications gear -- radios, pagers, cellphones and global positioning systems -- will work in a disaster.

Yet for all of America's formidable technology, communications meltdowns have wreaked havoc on large-scale emergencies for years, including the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 and the attacks on Sept. 11. First responders at Columbine turned first to their radios, then cellphones, then land lines in vain attempts to organize -- only to find that the sheer volume of activity had rendered all of them useless. And that was without the added problem of massive infrastructure damage like that seen in New Orleans.

"It is very frustrating to see these patterns over and over and over. We still have not learned," says Bill Pessemier, the executive communications advisor for the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Pessemier, now retired after 25 years of firefighting, was the fire chief in Littleton, Colo., on the day the Columbine shootings occurred. He saw firsthand the chaos that followed once communications systems were overwhelmed.

"We get so comfortable with the technology because on a day-to-day basis, that is what we do," he says. "What happened with Katrina is you get pummeled back to the Stone Age. You have to rely on face-to-face communications and organization."

Pessemier says that first responders have a hard time imagining operations without their relatively high-tech communications methods. Training sessions and exercises rarely include scenarios in which there is an information blackout. "You have to plan how you are going to work together when you have no technological support," says Pessemier.

Just as important, he says, first responders must map out exactly how organizations will share tasks and responsibilities in an emergency. Planners have to recognize that not only do organizations need to talk to their own staff, but police need to talk to firefighters, and firefighters may need to talk to the National Guard. This type of training is particularly difficult, given the local rivalries typical between many police and fire departments. Among emergency planners, that kind of cross talk and cooperation is called "interoperability."

"All states are working on this interoperability," says Nolan Jones, deputy director of federal relations at the National Governors Association. "We are in the process of trying to fix this," he says. Being able to do that sometimes does require investments in new technologies, he adds. "It is expensive."

With more money, first responders could hand out more cellphones as backups to radios, use satellite phones where cellphones fail, use more microwave technology for radio communications, and create what are called trunked radio systems, which allow more response units to talk with one another, says Joseph Estey, chief of police in Hartford, Vt., and the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The 9/11 Commission said in its report that "if New York and other major cities are to be prepared for future terrorist attacks, different first-responder agencies within each agency must be fully coordinated, just as different branches of the U.S. military are."

Many emergency-response experts say that responding to a terrorist attack or a natural catastrophe can be very similar. Once the lines of cooperation are clear, then the groups must decide how they will talk if all their communications gear fails, according to Pessemier. If that means relying on crude methods of communication, so be it -- that should be part of emergency training, he says.

Poor communications can certainly contribute to a situation that devolves into the chaos evident at the Superdome in New Orleans. While circumstances quickly deteriorated there for the thousands seeking refuge, it took days for adequate supplies and evacuation vehicles to arrive.

"If you can't communicate, you are going to have a real tough time knowing what is going on and managing resources," Pessemier says. A key part of the problems in New Orleans, he says, was that planners never considered what would happen if modern methods of communication were wiped out by a storm -- a mind-boggling oversight given disaster studies done in the years before Katrina struck.

An independent commission helped get to the bottom of problems with the emergency response in New York four years ago. But given today's political environment, it's unclear what kind of inquiry into the Katrina response might be carried out.

For Pessemier, some of the critical changes needed are already clear. "My guess is that we just did not plan for being able to work together in situations when we don't have technological support," he says. "We have to start planning for that."

By Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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