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Communications Breakdown in New Orleans

My cousin Kevin, who is in the Navy, wrote this insightful email about the communications breakdown that hampered early rescue efforts in New Orleans:

Being somewhat of an expert in establishing battlefield communications
(since that is one of the chief roles of the E-2), I figure I could address
Aunt Pat’s questions.

It is not surprising the cellular system went down. If it had remained
unharmed the system would probably be overwhelmed with calls being made into
and out of the disaster area. On 9-11 the cellular network crashed in NYC
and DC due to the incredible increase in phone traffic. Also, antennas are
not very good at standing up to hurricanes, physical damage has probably
left many powered station inoperable. If the antenna did survive at a
station, I suppose a generator could be used. However, there probably
wasn’t anyone there to turn it on if such a generator existed. They would
have evacuated (hopefully).

With the communications built into the infrastructure wiped out, the only
comms available on the ground were the radios carried by the police and the
National Guard. And knowing the government’s talent for standardization, it
is doubtful the Police and the Guard were using the same type of radio, and
even more doubtful they knew each others frequency plan. These hand units
would have been in constant use during the first response. Anyone who has a
cell phone knows how fast the battery drains when you are talking on it for
a prolong period of time. So battery life could also be a contributing
factor in the communication break down.

Even in a best case scenario, with charged batteries and a coordinated
frequency plan, portable ground radios have a very limited range. With the
disaster area on the gulf coast being roughly the size of Britain,
coordinating a wide spread rescue effort with the communication tools
available was impossible. Satellite radios could have helped, but they are
very expensive, and don’t make much sense for local police force to
purchase. Relay stations are a cheaper alternative to extend all of their
radio’s ranges across a city or state, but they go down with the power.

When the Navy, Coast Guard, and Army arrived on the scene with rescue
helicopters it added even more non-standardized equipment to the mix
(although aviators in general are pretty good at radio communications).
They still suffered from a limited range on their radios due to how low they
had to fly to accomplish their mission. Luckily, the military does have a
platform to help overcome most of these problems, the E-2C Hawkeye. Last
week the VAW-126 Seahawks were quickly deployed to Pensacola, FL. Equipped
with 11 different radios, they are now helping to coordinate the rescue
efforts.

When the command authority is able to quickly get information to and from
all of its assets, the effort is much more effective. We all saw on the
news how much better the rescue coordination became once new lines of
communication were established.

Unfortunately there was and still is one group with no way to communicate,
the survivors. I think this is the most tragic aspect of the collapse of
communication. Many people probably died because they did not have the
ability to call for help. For everyone building a disaster kit, I highly
recommend adding a battery powered radio capable of transmitting on 121.5
MHz or 243.0 MHz, these are aviation distress (‘Guard’) frequencies. You
will be able to contact any aircraft you see flying overhead on one of these
two frequencies.

-Kevin

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