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Ref: Communications abilities bolstered by new system LA officials say


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New system should improve emergency communications

Posted by ccharpen June 06, 2007 20:33PM
By Gordon Russell ?Staff writer
Apart from the levee breaches, perhaps no single factor was as responsible for the collapse of order in the dark days after Hurricane Katrina than the complete breakdown of communication among law enforcement officials.
As the storm hit, various departments in the region were midway through implementation of an "interoperable" communications system, one that -- theoretically, anyway -- would withstand a storm while allowing agencies across the metro area to talk to one another.
"We lost towers; we lost power," said Col. Jerry Sneed, director of New Orleans' Office of Emergency Preparedness. "Everything that could go wrong did go wrong."
Earlier this year, officials from Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes held a joint news conference to show off a new, $32 million system that they said would prevent a repeat of the debacle. With the new system, they said, firefighters from Jefferson Parish would be able to talk to cops from St. Bernard at the flick of a switch, and so on. Louisiana State Police and other state departments are also hooked in.
The high-powered new system got a quick test: Two weeks after it was unveiled, a series of tornadoes ripped through the area, touching down in Westwego, Carrollton and Gentilly. The system mostly passed with flying colors, according to local emergency preparedness officials.
Backup to the backup
There was a glitch, though. A lightning strike hit one of the system's 10 towers and caused the system's server to reboot. The feature that allowed agencies to talk to one another was down for as long as 15 minutes, and each department was forced to stick to the single channel assigned to it.
New Orleans firefighters switched briefly to their old radios, and some complained that the new system -- the installation of which was not complete -- didn't work as advertised.
But Sneed says everyone is now comfortable with the new equipment and confident of its ability to perform in adverse conditions. In future disasters, Sneed says, even a brief shutdown like the one caused by the tornado is unlikely; that happened only because some of the old equipment was still in place.
The new system has several redundancies, Sneed said. The 10 towers cover overlapping space, so that if several were to fail, the system still should have coverage. The server, based in Gretna, has a matching backup in Baton Rouge that would take over if the unit failed in Gretna.
Power to the towers is backed up by generators stored at heights that floodwaters should never reach and with enough gas to run for a week, he said. And according to Chief Deputy Newell Normand of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, all of the towers are designed to withstand sustained winds of at least 150 mph.
There are also mobile towers that can be brought in if the permanent ones fail.
Helping cooperation
"Do we have enough redundancy? Yes, we think so," Sneed said. "Does that mean that something could never go wrong? Of course not. But if a tower goes down, if there's a lightning strike, the system will continue to work."
While the system is designed with worst-case scenarios like a terrorist attack and Category 5 hurricane in mind, it has daily applications as well.
Normand agreed. Though he couldn't recall a specific situation where it resulted in an arrest, he said the new radios have increased interagency cooperation in solving routine crimes.
Likewise, said Sneed's deputy, Matthew Kallmyer, fire departments often back one another up in fires and the new system makes doing so easier.
"It used to be that if the bad guys crossed the parish line, we couldn't talk," Sneed said. "This is making us better."
Gordon Russell can be reached at or (504)¤826-3347.

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