Public safety officials from police departments in Louisiana and Alabama are joining telecommunications carriers and equipment makers in Washington to seek answers for the failure of communications networks during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
In some areas, the disruption left emergency responders even less prepared for this years storms than last years.
In New Orleans, voice communications for emergency personnel have still not been restored to pre-storm levels, said Major Michael Sauter, a commander with the New Orleans Police Department.
When Katrina struck, a radio interoperability project linking the sheriffs office and police department was 18 months from completion, but today funding is lacking to complete the system.
“From an interoperability perspective, we are in worse shape today than we were before the storm,” Sauter said. “We will be less prepared for the 2006 hurricane season unless we receive funding from outside sources.”
An independent panel of telecom providers, police officers, firefighters, and minority community representatives met in Washington on Monday, Jan. 30, to begin a five-month review of the communications networks failure during Hurricane Katrina and an examination of why it took so long to repair them.
The mission of the panel, called by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin, is to study the impact of Katrina on the telecom and media industries, review the effectiveness of the recovery efforts and recommend ways to improve disaster preparedness.
“This is a unique endeavor. For the first time, were bringing together experts from all sectors of the communications industry,” Martin said at the gathering.
“The awful damage caused by the worst natural disaster in the nations history underscored the importance of communications networks for response, relief and recovery efforts. The work of the experts gathered here today should help us all learn from this terrible experience so that we will be better prepared when the next crisis strikes.”
FCC commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein encouraged the panel to dig deep for answers behind the network failures and face up to mistakes that were made.
“Dont shy away from asking the tough questions,” Copps told the panel. “Go wherever the facts lead. If you ruffle feathers, so be it.”
Noting network failures during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the blackout on the east coast in 2003, Copps said the country is not as prepared as it should be for the next big natural or man-made disaster.
“Concrete actions to fix our communications systems have been a long time coming,” he said. “Resist any pressures to sweep any issues under the carpet.”
Several communications operators said they were hampered not so much by their own restoration capabilities but by the inability to get to their facilities because of ongoing flooding and public safety problems.
“I think we all saw the same problems with this,” said Tony Kent, vice president of Engineering & Network Operations at Cellular South, adding that most of the companys cell sites were knocked out because of disconnection to landline facilities and because of difficulty in bringing fuel to backup generators running the sites.
Panel chairwoman, Nancy Victory, a partner with the Washington law firm of Wiley Rein & Fielding, said the group will meet next in early March.