Independent Panel Reviewing Impact of Hurricane Katrina on Communications Networks

Posted on 12th June 2006

Report and Recommendations to the Federal Communications Commission 12 June 2006

Hurricane Katrina had a devastating impact on the Gulf Coast region of the USA, including its communications networks. Every sector of the communications industry was impacted by the storm. The Panel observed that most of the region’s communications infrastructure fared fairly well through the storm’s extreme wind and rain. However, the unique conditions that followed Katrina- substantial flooding, widespread, extended power outages, and serious security issues- led to damaging or disrupting communications service to a huge geographic area for a prolonged period of time. Three main problems that caused majority of the communications interruptions were:

• Flooding
• Lack of power/fuel
• Failure of redundant pathways for communications traffic

Network Reliability and Resiliency
The sheer force of Hurricane Katrina severely tested the reliability and resiliency of communications networks in the Gulf Coast region.

• Strong winds and rain made it difficult for technical staff to support and maintain the networks and blew antennas out of alignment.
• Heavy flooding following Katrina overwhelmed a large portion of the communications infrastructure, damaging equipment and impeding recovery.
• Single points of failure in vital communications links caused widespread outages across a variety of networks.
• Power failures outlasted most generator fuel reserves, leading to failure of otherwise functional infrastructure.

First Responder Communications
The ability of first responders to communicate amongst themselves and with the public was seriously challenged following Katrina. New Orleans Emergency Medical Service (EMS) was forced to cease 911 operations in anticipation of Katrina’s landfall and, after the levees were breached, a total loss of EMS and fire communications ensued. In the coastal areas, more than 2000 police, fire and EMS personnel were forced to communicate in single channel mode, radio-to-radio, utilising only three mutual aid frequencies. Some mutual-aid channels required each speaker to wait his or her turn before speaking, sometimes up to 20 minutes.

Lack of effective emergency communication after the storm revealed inadequate planning, coordination and training on use of technologies that can help to restore emergency communications. When primary communications systems failed, many public safety entities did not have plans for an alternative, redundant system to take its place. Non-traditional, alternative technologies that could have served as effective, back-up communications for public safety were not employed. The Panel points out that satellite infrastructure was generally unaffected by the storm and could have provided a viable back-up system. Those emergency personnel that did have access to satellite phones were unaware of how to use them and hence unable to communicate during critical times.

In many cases, responders were unable to communicate due to incompatible frequency assignments. When the existing infrastructure for the New Orleans system was incapacitated by flooding, communications were almost completely thwarted as too many users attempted to use the three mutual aid channels in the 800 MHz band. In addition, communications between the military and first responders also suffered from lack of interoperability. In some cases, the military was reduced to using human runners to physically carry messages between deployed units and first responders.

When a PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) becomes disabled, 911 emergency calls from the public are typically diverted to a secondary neighbouring PSAP using pre-configured traffic routes. In many cases, Katrina disabled both the primary and secondary PSAPs, which resulted in many unanswered emergency calls. Also, the emergency medical community was lacking in contingency communications planning and information about technologies and services that might address their critical communications needs.

Effect of Katrina on various types of Communications Networks
In the affected areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, more than 3 million customer phone lines were knocked out of service. Both switching centres and customer lines sustained damage. Thirty-eight 911 call centres went down. Approximately 100 broadcast stations were unable to transmit and hundreds of thousands of cable customers lost service.

Local cellular and personal communications service (PCS) received considerable damage with more than 1000 base station sites impacted. Lack of commercial power or lack of transport connectivity to the wireless switch caused the majority of the adverse impact. Television and radio broadcasting industry was also hard hit. Nearly 35% of radio stations failed and in New Orleans only 4 out of the 41 broadcast radio stations remained on air.

Satellite networks appeared to be the communications service least disrupted by the hurricane. Both fixed and mobile satellite system provided a functional, alternative communications path for those in the storm-ravaged region. Mobile satellite operators reported large increases in satellite traffic without any particular network/infrastructure issues. The Gulf Coast region deployed more than 20,000 satellite phones in the days following Katrina. Lack of user training and equipment preparation were the issues associated with satellite communication. Users observed that satellite data networks were more robust and had fewer difficulties in obtaining and maintaining communications with the satellite network than voice services.

Based upon its observations, the Panel has made a number of recommendations to the FCC for improving disaster preparedness, network reliability and communication among first responders in the following key areas:

• Pre-positioning the communications industry and the government for disasters in order to achieve greater network reliability and resiliency.
• Improving recovery coordination to address existing shortcomings and to maximise the use of existing resources
• Improving the operability and interoperability of public safety and 911 communications in times of crisis.
• Improving communication of emergency information to the public.

The exceptional circumstances that followed the landfall of Katrina led to a complete wash out of communications networks in the severely affected areas. The disaster has brought to the surface the inadequacy of emergency planning. A Review of Disaster Management in response to Hurricane Katrina by the Department of Homeland Security of the US Government calls for an ‘All Disaster Preparedness’. This concept involves a holistic approach towards disaster management and the ability to build a disaster response mechanism that is ready and deployable for a disaster of any shape, magnitude or means. Whether natural or man-made, disasters bring common consequences- loss of life and property. Any first responder mechanism needs to bear these in mind and develop most efficient and least time consuming means of addressing these issues. Effective and timely communication services serve as backbone for a robust public safety mechanism. Hence it is critical that a communication service, which is reliable during tough and difficult times, be seriously considered for this purpose.

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