October 6, 2008 By Chandler Harris
When hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Louisiana's West Baton Rouge Parish and Port of Greater Baton Rouge were unprepared to become the hub of rescue and relief operations.
But as it turned out, Greater Baton Rouge was the only deep-water port on the Mississippi River that hadn't sustained storm-related damage. Plus, the parish is close to Interstate 10 and rail lines, which made the region the impromptu post-Katrina headquarters for emergency relief and rescue operations. The port was quickly inundated by diverted vessels, residence ships and emergency supply ships. It became a staging area for emergency equipment, supplies, food, water and fuel being sent to the ports of New Orleans and St. Bernard and also Plaquemines Parish. The West Baton Rouge area became a central location for rescue operations.
The port could only rely on its communications system used during regular business operations, including cell phones, Internet, marine radios, and communications from river pilots, other emergency personnel and evacuees.
"All these forms of communications were intermittent in their service, if they worked at all," said Larry Johnson, current member and former president of the Greater Baton Rouge Port Commission. "These agencies were inundated with calls and requests for assistance from everywhere. Responding to the disaster came down to identifying and using available resources, and people helping people."
When the proverbial smoke cleared, local officials realized that coordinating rescue and recovery efforts through communication between the parish, port and other interagency groups at the local, state and federal levels was needed. Johnson worked with local agencies and officials to help create interoperable communications. He looked to neighboring state, Texas - specifically Harris County, which had a highly successful interoperable communications system.
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Harris is the third largest county in the United States, covering 1,788 square miles, and includes Houston, the fourth most populous U.S. city. The county has an impressive regional communications network with 133 channels and 17 tower sites serving itself and parts of eight other counties. The system supports approximately 32,000 users and 512 agencies with a coverage area larger than most states' total land area. Two additional counties are expected to join the network this year, which will increase the user base to 35,000 and 550 agencies. Regional subscribers include federal, state and local public safety and law enforcement agencies, fire and public works departments, cities, counties, public schools and university systems, as well as the Texas Medical Center and private air ambulance services.
"We built this system on the concept of sharing and pulling resources and frequencies so that we can base all frequencies across multiple infrastructures to provide the most enhanced function and use of frequencies," said Steve Jennings, CIO of Harris County. "We're looking at a holistic management system."
The system was built in 1989, when the county had a patchwork of more than 15 different independent radio networks. With the help of Motorola, it took only nine months to build an 800 MHz network to consolidate and centralize those systems into a six-channel system.
"One of the things about having different radio systems that are incompatible is, living on the Gulf Coast, we knew communication was absolutely critical," Jennings said. "There are lots of instances that require resources beyond the scope of any jurisdiction."
After the initial system was built, Jennings realized that the network was powerful enough to serve neighboring counties. Harris County then expanded to a 25-channel system.
Jennings compares the communication system to a utility company, where frequencies can be allocated in select areas across large territories. Agencies that join the network pay a monthly service fee and get spectrum access, tower capacity and technical assistance. Member agencies continue to control their own communications while maintaining standard operating procedures, but have affordable access to more than 130 frequencies.