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Disaster Response: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly



December 18, 2006 By

The problem of emergency communications and disaster recovery is often not the lack of resources, but lack of coordination. After Katrina, Sascha Meinrath coordinated the Community Wireless Emergency Response Initiative. The following offers some of what he and others learned about emergency communications.

Contrary to popular perception, the problem of disaster recovery is often not the lack of resources, but lack of coordination.

One key component to successful emergency response is a dynamic, direct and robust communications network -- a structure the United States had been missing. Key decision-makers turned a deaf ear to the problem until Hurricane Katrina made such an ostrich-stance untenable, and the United States had to learn the lesson the hard way. Yet a year later, improvements have been incredibly modest. During the next major disaster, experts say we should expect more of the same -- a lack of coherent, rapidly deployable, interoperable communications networks for first responders and the communities they serve.

In many ways, the state of U.S. disaster response is not too different from what we see in far less developed areas of the globe. Following the magnitude 7.6 earthquake that struck Pakistan, India and Afghanistan on Oct. 8, 2005, many problems faced by first responders were eerily similar to those experienced in Katrina's wake. According to one Indian IT expert familiar with the situation, "The machinery of government had difficulty getting and sending even a handful of satellite phones for use in the devastated areas. I don't know if any of them have fully ready-to-move transportable (airliftable) satellite video uplinks, which would certainly be very useful. Similarly equipment for receiving remote-sensing imagery in real time and GPS/location equipment [was lacking]."

Jeff Allen, a consulting engineer currently working in Liberia with M


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