Part 2 of 2

Last month's article covered some of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina for public-safety agencies and governments. This month's article will cover lessons learned for public-safety radio consultants and system engineers. Independent consultants can play a major role in helping public-safety agencies make the right decisions regarding the hardening of communications systems in order to survive disasters. Consultants also can help such agencies understand the various advantages offered by different vendors and their solutions.

A common theme of Hurricane Katrina was that the systems that fared well during the storm were designed and specified by independent consultants who had done the due diligence on the prevailing disaster profile in the region, had helped with a competitive procurement process and had the vendors build and install the system accordingly.

Let's examine the myriad factors and considerations that must be contemplated by an independent consultant:

  • Risk analysis: Different regions have different risks. One can characterize risks in terms of unplanned events and planned events such as athletic or cultural events. Unplanned events include hurricanes, floods, tornados, earthquakes and wildfires. Many urban areas are at threat from terrorists. Some locations have critical infrastructure that may be targeted, such as large nuclear power plants, airports or liquefied natural gas or petroleum storage facilities. Additional areas may be at risk for pandemic situations, such as the bird flu. The risk of a disaster befalling an area, and its potential impact on the public-safety communications system, must be analyzed.

  • Cost/benefit analysis: With the likely risks and effects on the communications system identified, engineers can work with the public-safety agency to weigh the benefits of various changes to the system against the associated costs. These costs can be portrayed over a timeline of several years to facilitate capital and expense budget planning by the agencies.

    There are, of course, many sources of federal grant funds, especially for major cities that represent a potential terrorist target. By presenting a continuum of various cost options, public-safety agencies can decide the expenditures for which they should budget.

  • System design and implementation: Whether designing a new communications system, or conducting a study for hardening an existing system, agencies should expect that such activities will take some time if they are to be done well. Engineers need to collect and analyze extensive meteorological data, earthquake information and agency operational plans. Agency historical data on the locations where most incidents happen are helpful in ensuring that those areas receive good radio coverage. Similarly, the installation and testing of system improvements or a new system will typically take a year or more, depending on the size of the system and the amount of civil works — such as foundations, towers and shelters — that have to be installed.

  • Power systems: Generators are rated as prime or standby usage. The former are designed to run continuously, the latter occasionally for short periods of time during short power outages. There is a large cost difference between the two, and usually standby-usage units are specified for communications systems. However, Katrina showed that a massive catastrophe could force standby generators to run for weeks and months at a time. It is not generally economical to provide prime power generators for public safety, so what is suggested instead is that the power systems have — in addition to automatic switchover to a standby-rated generator — the ability to transfer to a second power source.

    A pigtail connection (essentially an extension cord) should be wired by qualified electricians and provided at ground level so that a second generator can be brought in on a trailer from a leasing company and rapidly connected to the system. Providing such a three-way transfer switch and pigtail will be relatively inexpensive, but will save precious time during an extended disaster and will allow the standby-rated generator to be given periodic rest and maintenance periods. The power-transfer switches must be located so flooding cannot affect them. Agencies also should preplan sources of leased generators and fueling services.

    Communications sites typically also include DC-battery systems to provide power during the short period of time standby generators take to start up during a power outage. These battery systems need to be sized to allow time for generator repair or preventative maintenance in case generators are running for long periods of time. New Orleans' communications system site batteries were sized to allow at least four hours of operation. This allowed technicians to perform periodic maintenance on generators that, in some cases, ran for several months.

  • Backhaul links: Use of licensed microwave links between communications sites is preferred over unlicensed links or the use of leased circuits from telecommunications providers. Agencies in Louisiana that depended on leased T-1 lines found that they all went down during the storm. In contrast, the key links in New Orleans were all licensed microwave, which continued to operate. However, with the increasing proliferation of unlicensed equipment on the 2.4 GHz ISM band, links for vital public-safety circuits — which often are brought in by outside agencies providing disaster assistance — may encounter interference if they use unlicensed frequencies. At least one vendor can now provide backhaul links on the licensed public safety 4.9 GHz band that are a lower-cost alternative to traditional microwave links.

  • Antenna systems: Store spare antennas and coaxial cable so storm-damaged units can be replaced. Use microwave antenna radomes and strengthened braces in high-wind areas. Tie off coax at frequent intervals. Design combiner and multicoupler systems so there is no single point of failure at major sites.

  • HVAC: Ensure equipment sites have HVAC systems that are not dependent on building systems, or have a backup HVAC system that is powered from the standby generator system.

  • Site hardening: Shelters, fuel tanks and generators need to be well above flood planes and strengthened to withstand wind and flood surge; use existing tall buildings where possible. Towers need to be built to withstand at least 100-year winds and floods (Katrina proved even the 100-year threshold was insufficient). Adequate site-grounding and lightning and power-surge protection also is important.

  • PSAP/EOC facilities: Public-safety answering points (PSAPs) and emergency operations centers need to have sufficient facilities to run autonomously for days or weeks, depending on the risk. Stored water and food, cots, refuse-containment systems, and independent toilet facilities will be needed if the site becomes stranded because of storm, wildfire, earthquake or epidemic.
  • Interoperability: Communications systems must first be operable before they can interoperate with other agencies, and many of the suggestions in these articles can help ensure that. Plan with other public-safety agencies which interoperability links will be needed and how they will be used. Operational planning must include standard operating procedures (SOPs) for first responders regarding how the interoperability is to be invoked and used — and by whom. These SOPs need to be kept simple, and officers should be provided with “crib sheets” to carry with them at all times. Interoperability must then be practiced regularly to ensure field users are familiar with the capabilities. While interoperability among neighboring agencies has been extensively discussed in the industry, interoperability with federal agencies, such as FEMA, and with military units, such as the National Guard, has been more elusive, as Katrina illustrated.

    Federal agencies are licensed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and operate on different sub-bands of the 150 MHz and 450 MHz bands used by state and local FCC-licensed agencies. One solution is to install groups of repeaters at key locations or in communications vans that include both federal and local/state mutual-aid frequencies. By linking these repeaters together, a “commander's net” can be created among these disparate agencies to ensure the top commanders can coordinate operationally at a major incident. Using IP to link these repeaters can provide some operational flexibility.

  • NFPA 1221: This voluntary national specification contains many suggestions for PSAPs regarding communications line redundancy, emergency power, HVAC, etc.

With proper planning and design, communications systems can be hardened to withstand the disasters that engineers and their clients identify as risks that must be mitigated.

John Facella is the director for public-safety markets at M/A-COM Wireless Systems. He has 23 years' experience in public-safety radio and 20 years of first-responder experience as a firefighter/EMT. He is a member of APCO and the International Association of Chiefs of Police Communications and Technology Committee.


  • Perform risk and cost-benefit analyses.

  • Provide capability for a second generator to be easily connected at major sites.

  • Reduce dependency on unlicensed or leased-line backhaul.

  • Ensure that site HVAC systems can operate independently of building systems.

  • Harden sites to survive 100-year-plus weather conditions.

  • Equip PSAPs and EOCs to be self-sustaining for days.