Katrina forces rethinking
Getting, sharing info at heart of poor response
- By Alice Lipowicz
- Aug 18, 2006
"There is not nearly enough federal attention on standards for interoperable data for emergencies," says David Aylward, ComCare Alliance.
Hurricane Katrina hurtled across the Gulf Coast shoreline Aug. 29, 2005, destroying the homes of hundreds of thousands of people and devastating communities, forcing the nation to redefine, once again, its perceptions of what is needed for effective emergency preparedness and response.
Whatever the failures in the response to Katrina ? and the scale and number of breakdowns were unprecedented ? the final tally must include the IT systems that did not function in those chaotic weeks or were never even implemented.
"The preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina show we are still an analog government in a digital age," said the final report of the congressional Select Bipartisan Committee on Preparations for and Response to Hurricane Katrina. "We must recognize that we are woefully incapable of storing, moving and accessing information ? especially in times of crisis."
Among those who witnessed the effects of Katrina's awesome power at close range is Mark Ghilarducci, a vice president of the GlobalOptions Group consulting firm who helped state officials do command and control at the Baton Rouge, La., Emergency Operations Center within days after the hurricane hit. He and other experts view Katrina as a technology crisis of both operability, or restoration of basic functioning, and of the less tangible goal of interoperability, or the ability of systems and technologies to integrate quickly in response to an incident.
In New Orleans and surrounding areas, with power out, radio networks down and many backup generators flooded, emergency responders had little or no ability to communicate with their command centers. Many were forced to use short-lived battery power and to improvise in small groups without support from a larger system, Ghilarducci said.
"I've spent 25 years in disaster management, and I was amazed at the failures I saw," Ghilarducci told Washington Technology. "There were plans, but no one was using them. There were checks and balances, but they broke down."
For interoperability, experts said communication systems, devices and networks that could have been used to coordinate information and support for New Orleans either failed to work, were stuck in development or had never been built.
Most of the country today faces similar obstacles in emergency interoperability, despite efforts since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Most stuff we've done on interoperability since 9/11 has been wrongheaded and useless," said James Carafano, senior fellow for homeland security at the Heritage Foundation. "We haven't defined the problem right, and the solution sets are 'old-think.' "
Even so, improving IT to better prepare for and protect the public against the next major disaster is undoubtedly one of Katrina's legacies.
Out of the mass destruction of Katrina has grown a renewed interest in applying IT to save lives and homes and to ameliorate the damage following the next major hurricane, attack or disaster. Among the needs:»
Deliver effective warnings to the public.»
Establish, coordinate and integrate public safety communications systems and networks.»
Share crisis information for situational awareness and incident command.»
Implement IT systems to better identify and track incoming water, food, medical care and other aid and to document care for evacuees and patients.»
Develop IT systems to credential and coordinate emergency responders, among others.Warning the masses
Experts agreed that public warnings of Katrina's approach were delivered in a timely fashion and likely saved thousands of lives. However, there are concerns about the effectiveness and timeliness of the calls to evacuate, instructions given to evacuees, and dissemination of information about levee breaches and flood waters pouring into New Orleans neighborhoods.
With widespread power outages and disorder, "clearly, there was no effective warning system in place after the hurricane struck," said Art Botterell, a national public warning advocate and manager of Contra Costa County, Calif.'s warning system. "They were not ready for the second disaster [flooding]."
Similar gaps in public warning systems are common and persist across the country, said Richard Rudman, a former board member of the Partnership for Public Warning advocacy group. The nation's Emergency Alert System, now run by the Homeland Security Department, is overdue for a major upgrade, he said, and Katrina may have prompted a push in that direction.
Television broadcasters developed the system decades ago to deliver mandatory, presidential emergency messages. The same system is used voluntarily to distribute warnings originating from state and local agencies.
Rudman and others said the system is patchworked and unwieldy, with different procedures in each state and often in each city and county. After Katrina hit, those problems were compounded when 44 percent of the local TV broadcasting stations in the affected area went off the air as a result of lost power and failures in their backup generators.
President Bush's June 26 executive order requiring a national emergency alert strategy and other improvements is a big step forward, Rudman said. But greater federal involvement is still needed on two issues: »
Develop public warning systems that work on all types of systems and devices, including computers, cell phones and personal data assistants.»
Foster national open standards for public warning technologies, so vendors can build interoperable systems from the start.
Progress is being made. The Homeland Security Department is testing a digitized version of alerts that would be broadcast by public television stations. (See story, page 36) The department also has endorsed an alert warning standard, the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), certified by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards.
Using standards will foster dissemination of the warnings to numerous devices, Rudman said. "Once you have created a CAP-compliant source of information, it will be easier to hook different types of cell phones into the system," because vendors will adopt the common standard, he said.
Still, public warning efforts sometimes stall in apparent turf battles.
In Congress, public warning bills give authority to both the Homeland Security and Commerce departments; Commerce oversees the National Weather Service, the agency that delivers weather warnings. Recently, the weather service prepared to release its HazCollect national warning system to deliver all types of warnings.
However, the HazCollect system was to use what Botterell, an original CAP architect, described as a "crippled and incomplete" version of the protocol. After it was criticized for modifications to the protocol, the weather service said July 17 that it would revert to the original protocol.Communications gaffes
Report after report, from the White House, Congress, and other federal and state officials, noted that one of the most critical problems immediately after Katrina struck was the widespread breakdown in basic communications.
Among all post-Katrina problems, "first and foremost was communications," David Paulison, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told the press in June.
The storm knocked out 3 million phone lines, numerous 911 call centers and nearly half of the area's television and radio stations. Many first responders, including police officers, could not communicate.
"When the power went out, the police radios were out. The Third District police couldn't talk to the Fourth District," Lt. Lawrence McLeary, public affairs supervisor for the Louisiana Public Safety Department, told Washington Technology. "There were no [radio] communications at all."
For the first few days, officers used cell phones until their batteries wore down, he said.
Since last year, one active area of IT development has been wireless communications networks that can be trucked in or brought in by air, and deployed immediately following an incident. Typically, these use mobile wireless network with voice over IP telephones or a satellite telephone system.
Some systems are modeled after the InfraLynx mobile communications van deployed by the Pentagon's Northern Command homeland security unit. The van, developed by the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, can support land mobile radios from different agencies and connect with classified Pentagon networks.
"It is a deployable truck that we can roll into the back of a C-17 or C-130, and we're airborne to the scene of a crisis," Adm. Timothy Keating, Northcom commander, said in a news release.
Also gaining attention are the needs for post-disaster interoperability and information-sharing for situational awareness and incident command. Congress and DHS have been addressing major gaps in interoperability that have existed for decades and were painfully exposed by the Sept. 11 attacks. However, there is no national strategy for interoperability, and progress has been mostly incremental.
Police and firefighters, who use land mobile radio systems, are buying devices to patch together disparate systems and doing regional upgrades for voice interoperability. In Louisiana, the state has bought 300 additional radios and 12 portable patching boxes to link radio systems at an incident scene, McLeary said.
Meanwhile, the DHS Office of Interoperability and Compatibility is completing a national review of legacy systems and how interoperable they are.
For data interoperability, a large but diffuse community of 911 operators, county and state emergency managers, medical professionals and vendors are pressing for open standards and architectures to promote post-disaster data interoperability.
The goal is to create IT systems that would, for example, let responders view a common operational picture of the incident, indicating where police and fire officials are and marking hazardous materials or supply caches. Greater data interoperability standards also could let hospitals post common information on daily bed availability, and let 911 centers share geographic databases to let a nonfunctioning 911 center divert calls without losing effectiveness.
"There is not nearly enough federal attention on standards for interoperable data for emergencies. Almost all the focus is on voice interoperability," said David Aylward, executive director of the ComCare Alliance, a national, non-profit advocacy group for improved emergency communications. ComCare has been working on standards to provide real-time information on the availability of hospital beds, equipment, personnel and supplies.Tracking and logistics
Several weeks after Katrina struck, one of the chief upgrades announced by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was to improve FEMA's logistics systems. The new system would better track shipments of food, water, medicines and other materials to disaster scenes.
"In Katrina, FEMA faced challenges in having full situational awareness of where the needs were greatest, getting supplies into affected areas, and tracking shipments of supplies to ensure that they reached the people who need them," Chertoff told the House Select Committee on Katrina Oct. 19, 2005.
The Emergency Interoperability Consortium, a non-profit group of industry and government, is working with DHS to develop standards for resource tracking, so that emergency managers in different locations can use common terms and share information.
In addition to creating logistics problems, the storm also swept away millions of pages of medical records from hospitals, nursing homes and doctors' offices. The lack of ability to electronically access patient medical records hampered medical treatment of evacuees, according to the February report from the House Select Committee.
The American Health Information Community, an IT advisory group to the Health and Human Services Department, recommended this month that the federal government identify and prioritize data elements for electronic medical records for first responders. The elements should include information on the patient's demographics, medications, allergies and symptoms and diseases under management, the community said. That study should be completed by October.Verifying the help
In the chaos that followed Katrina, numerous volunteers, including TV journalist Geraldo Rivera and actor Sean Penn, rushed to the scene to offer help. But at some checkpoints, volunteers were detained while they searched to prove their identities.
For example, at one checkpoint in a New Orleans suburb, out-of-state physicians could not enter the affected area for several days, McLeary said. With phones and computers down and no electricity, it was very difficult to verify credentials and licensures, he said.
The state police and National Guard had resources to check IDs, but some local officials operated checkpoints independently and were not applying a standard method for verifying credentials, McLeary said. To improve the situation, the state has developed a soon-to-be-released standard operating procedure for first-responder credentialing, he said.
High-tech ID solutions for first responders also are being developed. Even before Katrina, DHS had begun categorizing emergency responders into standard groups. The agency also is testing a national ID card system to verify identities of firefighters, police, emergency medical technicians and other responders.
The DHS Office of National Capital Region Coordination is sponsoring an identity card for about 200,000 first responders. The card would comply with the Federal Information Processing Standard 201, which is the standard for federal employee identification cards. That should make the first-responder card interoperable with other ID cards using the same standard, such as the one for port workers.
DHS officials said that would be a boon in facilitating cooperation and joint operations in the event of a terrorist incident at a port.
"We are leveraging the same technology for first-response personnel," Tom Lockwood, director of the coordination office, said in an interview. The project is using $4 million in DHS Urban Area Security Initiative grants as an initial capital investment. Thus far, the card has been tested in four field exercises this year.
There also are talks between industry groups and DHS about extending the first-responder card to post-disaster utility workers, telecom workers, bank workers and others who must enter a disaster scene quickly to restore critical infrastructure.
Katrina taught the lesson that the nation still is not ready. Will new IT provide the additional help needed to respond effectively to the next disaster? The answer is not clear.
"The federal government is the largest purchaser of IT in the world, by far," said the bipartisan select committee report. "One would think we could share information by now. But Katrina again proved we cannot."
Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at email@example.com.