Friday, May 25, 2007

Can you hear me now?

Wednesday's Tactical Interoperable Communications Plan exercise (TICP) underwent a thorough four hour review in the LPD Main Conference Room yesterday morning by the evaluators. I served as one of the peer evaluators, but the evaluation group was mainly composed of State and Federal officials from the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). I went through the evaluator training earlier, and Wednesday evening I was a trained observer watching and documenting what was occurring. It was an odd experience for me--I wanted to jump in the command structure, but couldn't.

The scenario for this exercise was a tornado strike in three locations, downtown, east Lincoln near Westfield Shopping Town/Gateway, and Highway 6 through Waverly. When you think about it, this is among the more likely critical incidents to occur in our area. The sky was dark and foreboding as the exercise began, with severe weather in the forecast.

The exercise, however, was primarily about communications: in the event of a large scale incident that outstripped the capabilities of Lincoln Fire & Rescue and the Lincoln Police Department, could be engage mutual support from other agencies effectively, and set up a functional communications and command structure? We ultimately involved the Public Works Department, StarTran, Lincoln Public Schools, all three hospitals, rural fire departments, utility companies, the Red Cross, Lancaster County Emergency Management, and all the other area law enforcement agencies.

From a technological standpoint, communication was smooth: everything worked, we had plenty of capacity, there were no problems in establishing effective radio talk paths and groups. Yes, a bus driver can really communicate with a fire fighter, if the situation requires. We learned a great deal from the problems that were experienced, and it will help us as we move forward. I am anxious for a follow-up exercise, which we may do quite quickly. We are thinking about a "table-top" for police and fire commanders in particular.

You always learn the most from the problems. These always surface in complex operations, and this is where issues can be identified for troubleshooting or improvement. The problems we encountered had nothing to do with the technological capabilities, and reinforced what I've always known: communications interoperability relies on preplanning, exercising, organizational abilities, entrepreneurial decision-making, and a variety of other factors primarily in the realm of organization, not radio technology. The technical part is the easy one, the real challenges are on the people side.

One of the interesting sidebars is that the real world intruded twice on the exercise. We had taken over a large number of talkgroups to use in the mock scenario, but we had to leave plenty for the firefighters, police officers, and deputies on duty for normal operations. About an hour into the scenario, I received a call from Capt. David Beggs--our real world duty commander. He briefed me on a critical incident, for which I activated our SWAT Team. The officers establishing the perimeter at this event (a high-risk search warrant) needed a tactical talkgroup that we were using in the exercise. At this point, all the law enforcement officers in the exercise were moved off the needed tactical talkgroup to another radio talkgroup. This happened effortlessly, and without confusion or interruption.

The real world weather also intruded: a severe storm warning caused us to close up shop a few minutes early--an appropriate end to a communications exercise centered around a tornado scenario.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Just curious what training, if any, you did regarding the use or activation of backup communication systems?

It seems to me that if such a scenario as you simulated actually happened, the likelihood that the existing communications infrastructure would be unaffected would be pretty low.

So - you have a catastrophic natural disaster, existing communications networks are damaged and perhaps offline. I'm sure you have backups...?

Let's assume that towers etc. in and around the affected areas are still up - but a relay station or worse - the communications center is also hit. Is there redundancy there?

Also - let's assume that your radio infrastructure is unaffected. I'm hoping you are accounting for the fact that other, traditional communications infrastructure might be damaged, and place additional load on your radio systems.

For example - how much daily communication between Officer and Sgt is handled by cell phone? We can bet that traditional phone lines are going down - which means civilians are going to be flooding the cell freqs. (assuming they work) So that Officer to Sgt traffic has now got to go over radio. How is Lincoln capacity for that?

Finally, you can assume (or hope) that in the case of a catastrophic natural disaster - every officer, fireman, street worker etc. on or off duty, is going to be grabbing their boots, hat and radio and heading to the scene to help out. So even without the additional burdens described above - radio traffic is going to be well above what one might expect.

Glad you are doing these drills - just throwing out some questions / food for thought as to the scenarios you are drilling for.

Tom Casady said...

Actually, part of this scenario included the loss of both landline and cellular telephone service in the City. It did not include the loss of the Communications Center, but we've done that in the past, and the Comm Center exercises the backup site regularly. They actually pick up and move live comms during this, so it's more than a drill.

We also have several layers of redundancy and contingency in our radio system, including loss of a radio site, loss of microwave links, loss of fiber optic backhaul, loss of any individual site entirely, loss of the trunked system, and even loss of both trunked and conventional repeated sites in their entirety. Since these are primarily technological, they are indeed exercised regularly by the radio shop and Comm Center. We also practice the human side of that from time to time--forcing operations into one of the fail-safe modes for periods of time, so that everyone has to get used to running ops on a single site, functioning without CAD, or changing their radio to a conventional system.

Interestingly, we had a very good real-world situation on October 25, 1997 that put the communications system under just the kind of stress you describe. 100,000 households and businesses were without power, some for up to a week, the landline and cellular phone networks were out of commission for a couple days, all comms had to take place on about the only functioning private radio network in the City--ours, we had hundreds of high-need citizens (mentally ill, elderly, home bound, and so forth) in need of emergency shelter and care--some for several days.

It was a thing of beauty to see police commanders like Doug Srb and Joy Citta setting up and operating emergency shelters, and getting stuff done by hook or by crook--like medications, oxygen, adult diapers, pets, and...pizza.