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September 09, 2005

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Communications failure is a feature in EVERY emergency. It will happen. The biggest problem with the current approach of "more technology" is that it obscures the real problem: a failure to train responders in protocols that address how to operation in lieu of communications with headquarters.

In our small county in the northern Rockies, many of our emergency response agencies replaced our $500 radios with handsets that cost in the range of $5000 that use the magical "trunked" system alluded to in the article. In our case, the radios were replaced with money from a large grant ($3M+) from the Homeland Security Department. The new radio system (a proprietary digital trunk system by Motorola) has the distinct advantage of covering more areas in our county (a huge benefit when we're working in the backcountry) and being more redundant (we added repeaters to the network, and the multiple repeaters allow the system to handle more traffic).

However, our county has not begun to deal with the long-term cost implications of the system, and it is unclear whether this new system would continue to operate in conditions that would be considered "worst plausible case" scenarios: -10degree weather, blizzard conditions plus an earthquake. We'd be hard pressed to get fuel to run the central emergency generators let alone the repeater sites that the system relies on. We don't know what our battery life will be in average winter temperatures (0), let alone temperatures that routinely freeze our batteries during most winters (-20 and below). It sounded like many of the problem in NO related to lack of power for the equipment: it's going to be a standing problem in any widespread emergency. (In NY, 9/11/02, the main emergency communications center for NY was in the World Trade Center).

Technology is only an enabler. The real money must be spent on developing operational protocols appropriate for various scenarios and training, training, training. Mundane, hard work with little immediate payoff, but absolutely critical in the event of a rapid onset emergency that doesn't abate.

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