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July 10, 20136 min read

Natural Disasters — Déjà vu


Did Katrina help us get ready for Sandy?
By Dorothy Jimenez, Director of Operations—Communications, BriCom Solutions.

Natural DisasterOn October 30, 2012, Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast Region of the United States as a post-tropical cyclone with hurricane-force winds. It was a hybrid “superstorm” unlike any ever seen before and brought with it a grim sense of déjà vu.

Seven years earlier, Hurricane Katrina wiped out the infrastructure of multiple cities, causing mass chaos, many deaths and an estimated US$108 billion worth of property damage—the costliest of all US Atlantic hurricanes. While Hurricane Sandy has come in second to Katrina with an estimated US$75 billion in property damage, the 2012 superstorm took out even the most advanced communications systems with their multiple levels of back-up and redundancy.

When most people think of Hurricane Sandy, they remember the Jersey shore, Breezy Point, New York City, or even Atlantic City. Most people don’t realize that in New Jersey alone there was an estimated US$30 billion in damage. At the peak of the storm more than 2.5 million citizens were without power, and 37 people lost their lives. Also unknown to most, several Northern New Jersey communities suffered unimaginable damage from fires, structural damage, downed power lines and uprooted trees due to torrential downpour, four to six foot water, and gale-force winds.

The two towns at the epicenter of the devastation were Moonachie and Little Ferry. “Within a half an hour from the time the storm first hit Moonachie, we lost all communication from the Police Department which dispatched all emergency calls for our town’s police, fire and EMS,” recalls Frank Smith, Captain of Moonachie First Aid and Rescue Squad and the second Assistant Chief of Moonachie Fire Department. “The storm waters came up so fast that it took us all by surprise. We expected the storm to be bad and cause lots of damage, but we never imagined that the flooding would be so severe.”

Moonachie after Hurricane Sandy

Moonachie, New Jersey

Moonachie is a small town in Bergen County, New Jersey. All forms of emergency communication are through their Police Department, which includes their office of emergency management. Moonachie has no repeater, so when the floodwater engulfed the police station, all radio communication among their emergency services were knocked out. Along with losing their Police Department, Moonachie’s Fire Station and First Aid and Rescue Squad buildings were also under water, washing out all their radios, medical supplies, rescue equipment and uniforms. “After rescuing my family from our home in Little Ferry, I found an unoccupied factory in Carlstadt to bring them to so I could regroup and start making calls to see what steps we needed to take next,” says Captain Smith. “The owner of the warehouse was really kind and said I could use it as a base of operations and a shelter for all Moonachie’s emergency service members and their families.”

In addition to residential rescues, Captain Smith and his squad then began mass evacuations of all members of Moonachie’s Police, Fire, and First Aid Squad, with the use of their personal cell phones and portable-to-portable radio as their only forms of communication. Thanks to the larger neighboring city of Hackensack, Moonachie was able to reroute all emergency calls through their Fire Department’s 911 network. Moonachie was then able to monitor their channel to hear when calls came in.

Natural DisasterOne of Moonachie’s neighboring towns was also having issues with communication. Their repeater—located on the roof of a local hospital—had been damaged during the storm so they were running on strictly analog communication. According to a Bergen County Police Officer, “…there was no reliable primary source of communication during Hurricane Sandy, be it our primary channel on our radios, cell phones, or Internet connection. Nothing could be counted on to be working at 100%.”

Captain Smith found himself at the mercy of the elements when the amphibious vehicle he was traveling in with his partner stalled, and was pinned up against a tractor trailer by the raging floodwaters. With their mayday calls virtually inaudible over the airwaves, they were rescued by a kind Samaritan with a truck who managed to tow them to safety.

It’s circumstances like these that show that the emergency communications our brave professionals use every day can still be improved upon.

Since the Hurricane Sandy mop-up, many changes have been made.

Some of the repeaters in the surrounding towns were down for two weeks following the storm—these have now been replaced with a much more sophisticated system with multiple points of backup.

Moonachie First Aid and Rescue Squad Truck

Moonachie First Aid and Rescue Squad Truck

“One of our biggest challenges during Hurricane Sandy was trying to get from point A to point B due to a severely flooded area of our town, and lack of communication as to what areas were impassable—we had to go through other surrounding towns just to gain access to it,” says another Bergen County Police Officer. “Now with this knowledge and better ways to pass it along, we will be able to evacuate certain areas and plot out better ways to access them before it becomes a life-threatening situation.”

Captain Smith has similar sentiments. “We now know that if there is a chance of severe flooding, we have to immediately evacuate all emergency personnel and equipment to higher ground,” he said.

Superstorm Sandy has shown us is that our communication infrastructure isn’t completely prepared for these types of natural disasters and that improvements must be made. Advancements have been made in interoperability between cities within the last 10 years, but we need to make sure that interoperability reaches further and can be adapted for the situation at hand. This will allow emergency services to communicate more efficiently with outside agencies like the National Guard and mutual aid from other states, not just between cities or surrounding towns.

The storm opened many people’s eyes to these problems and there’s no single fix. But there are a number of big-ticket actions to take.

  • Agencies need to be able to deploy rapid repeaters that are either standard analog, IP radio repeaters (RoIP) or vehicle MESH repeaters that use LTE, SAT or 3G. These simple “flick of the switch” solutions allow agencies to switch to a disaster communication protocol, effortlessly and seamlessly.
  • An interoperable network that allows agencies from different states and federal departments to communicate with local emergency personnel, allowing mutual aid assistance to better share information and resources.
  • Agencies need to better prepare themselves in case power isn’t quickly restored. A stronger backup solution for long-term blackouts is essential, perhaps utilizing solar energy or wind turbines.

It’s clear we cannot prepare ourselves for every eventuality—all we can do is learn everything we can from each natural disaster and improve emergency communications wherever possible. Hopefully, it will be a long time before we’re tested by another “Sandy”.

Although the Moonachie Police and Fire Stations have been fully repaired, the same is not the case for the First Aid and Rescue Squads; their building has still not been repaired due to lack of funds. It is privately owned by the organization and relies on donations.

The members—all of whom are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week—have only one room with no heat, no beds, no kitchen, one working sink, and only one working bathroom. Despite all these obstacles—hurricanes and superstorms included—this remarkable group of volunteer men and women has not missed a single call in 11 years. “We’re not heroes, we’re just doing the job we were trained to do,” says Captain Smith. “A hero is a person who’s just walking down the street and runs into a burning building to save a stranger’s life. That is a true hero!”

Tait Connection MagazineThis article is taken from Connection Magazine, Edition 3. Connection is a collection of educational and thought-leading articles focusing on critical communications, wireless and radio technology.

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