Public safety communications were put to the ultimate test in Fall 2017 as Hurricanes Irma and Maria ripped through Puerto Rico, Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, TX, and wildfires and earthquakes continue to impact the west. Brandon Romero, Director of Sales Engineering, participated in the Disaster Operations - Lessons Learned from Fall 2017 panel at IWCE 2018 to weigh in on how to prepare your critical communications for disasters. Read on for his key takeaways.
When it comes to disaster operations, you can never be too prepared or over plan. Communications Managers considering implementing P25 radio communication systems or subscribers in a disaster-prone area need to know if their equipment is up for the challenge. Here are my five key takeaways for public safety agencies to consider when preparing for disaster-operations:
Know the limits of your system.
Be aware of your site locations and conditions at all times. Every site location has its ‘special’ issue such as site access, dangerous roads, and flood-prone areas. Be prepared for when these facilities go down.
Power your system.
Logistically prepare for refueling and generator maintenance during outages. Generators are typically used for 2-3 week periods during disaster relief. Facilitates in Puerto Rico have been utilizing generators for six months. To keep these generators operational for the duration of the outage, you must plan for maintenance, oil changes, and refueling.
Know your users.
Understanding how the communication system is utilized during day-to-day activities and disaster operation can help you prepare for the unexpected. Each agency uses a system differently. For example, some agencies make multiple short calls, while other agencies make fewer calls but longer duration. Each of these will have a different impact on system capacity during an emergency situation.
Be prepared for aid and helping hands.
Be prepared to have “foreign” users enter to aid in disaster relief. Assign interoperability channels to designated areas of operation and train users on how these channels function.
Stock up on spares.
Cell towers are down and no one knows when the power is coming back on - your radio is your lifeline. Make sure you have enough spare batteries for your fleet.
Close up: Hurricane Maria
Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017 causing a complete island-wide power and cellular outage as the backup power systems failed. The ATLAS® P25 system implemented in Puerto Rico in 2011 was put to the ultimate test as high winds caused significant damage to most of the sites and disrupted the network that connects the tower sites. Although the ATLAS system was split into two or more parts, the coreless infrastructure enabled wide-area communication to first responders. Puerto Rico’s ATLAS P25 system was designed with Latitude™ technology offering auto-discovery and self-healing sites, distributed call control, and simulcast control. As many of the facilities had significant physical damage or were completely destroyed, several ATLAS sites went into site-trunking mode until these “orphaned” sites re-established connectivity to the remaining sites.
During the Q&A session of the presentation, the Lead Technician of the Puerto Rico Police Department, said, “The ATLAS system worked exactly as proposed ... if it weren’t for EFJohnson and our local partner, Codecom’s rapid response, things would have been much worse.”
When selecting a radio system partner, make sure you choose a vendor that best meets your user and operational needs. There are many times when the best technical and operational solution is not the lowest cost. One cannot put a dollar sign on life.