It's Hurricane Season Again-Will Your Communications Hold Up?

It's Hurricane Season Again-Will Your Communications Hold Up?

Article Aug 31, 2006

     Hurricane Katrina brought home some harsh realities that crisis events can inflict devastating damage on a region's communications infrastructure. Although most carriers have backup systems in place, the loss of a single fiber-optic cable or the failure of a computer program can disrupt thousands of wireline and wireless channels and trigger congestion on the public telephone network.

     This communications congestion could force public safety personnel to compete with the public for the same congested landline and wireless resources. Although it is important for the public to be able to communicate, there needs to be a system that allows first responders to obtain and maintain ongoing communications during a crisis event.

     The National Communications System (NCS), part of the Department of Homeland Security's Preparedness Directorate, provides priority telecommunications services that give first responders and other emergency organizations priority status over routine calls from the general public, thus ensuring essential communications for emergency response.

     NCS priority telecommunications service offerings include the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS), the Wireless Priority Service (WPS) and Telecommunications Service Priority (TSP) Program. These programs anchor the NCS efforts toward ensuring that emergency response personnel are able to communicate with federal, state and local leadership.

What Is GETS?
     The Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS) is a nationwide wireline priority telecommunications program currently serving over 132,000 users. GETS subscribers use a calling card to receive priority queuing in the local and long-distance segments of the public telephone network during disasters or other emergency events. NCS designed GETS to make maximum use of all available telephone resources if outages occur during a crisis.

     According to Clint Sonier, director of information technology infrastructure and telecommunications with the West Jefferson Medical Center in New Orleans, LA, "GETS proved to be essential for our continued operations in the aftermath of Katrina. Outgoing trunks were jammed. Our local phone company lost two central offices that increased traffic and we lost our primary long-distance carrier."

     Sonier said that without GETS, they would have been cut off from their surrounding areas, especially Baton Rouge, where it was critical for them to keep in contact with the state emergency operations center.

     "GETS also allowed us to coordinate supply shipments-even weeks after the disaster we still had phone issues," said Sonier. "GETS allowed us to continue doing normal things like supply purchasing via fax."

     One advantage of enrolling in GETS is that it is inexpensive to sign up and participate in the program. Eligible personnel and organizations have no initial sign-up fee or monthly recurring charge. Additionally, the cost of a GETS call varies from seven to 10 cents per minute, depending on the carrier.

     NCS officials documented over 32,000 completed GETS calls during the first 12 days of Hurricane Katrina, recording a 95% call completion rate.

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A Wireless Friend
     Wireless Priority Service (WPS) is a wireless companion to the GETS program. WPS ensures national security/emergency preparedness communications availability when wireless communications (cellular, personal communications services and satellite) users experience high levels of call blocking. In emergency situations that involve damaged wireline networks, cellular telephones often provide the primary means of communication, increasing congestion even further. WPS allows authorized NS/EP personnel to gain access to the next available wireless radio channel in order to initiate calls during an emergency. WPS users can invoke the WPS service by dialing *272 before the number.

     WPS, when used in conjunction with GETS, ensures end-to-end call completion in both the wireline and wireless portions of the public telephone switched network. The use of WPS and GETS ensures that emergency workers get connected and stay connected to one another and to people in need.

     Current WPS carriers include T-Mobile, Cingular, Sprint Nextel (iDEN) and Verizon Wireless. The cost for WPS is a $10 one-time activation fee, a $4.50-per-month services fee and 75 cents per minute for WPS calls. WPS charges are in addition to the basic subscription charges of the carrier.

Telecommunications
     NCS also manages and operates a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) program called Telecommunications Service Priority (TSP).

     In the wake of a crisis event, telecommunications vendors sometimes become overwhelmed with requests for new services and requirements for restoring existing services. Under TSP, participating agencies receive priority treatment from telecommunications service providers for the restoration of damaged equipment or the installation of new communications equipment that is critical to disaster response, emergency preparedness or national security. Service vendors are bound by the FCC mandate to restore TSP-assigned telecommunications services before non-TSP services.

     TSP is invaluable to the emergency communications community. Whether responding to a natural disaster or maintaining emergency communications networks, the TSP program is the only authorized mechanism to enable priority provisioning and restoration of NS/EP telecommunications services. A TSP assignment ensures that circuit will receive priority attention by the service vendor before any non-TSP circuit. There were 3,270 TSP provisioning requests processed for Hurricane Katrina and 121 requests processed for Hurricane Rita.

Sharing the Load
     In addition to the priority telecommunications services, NCS provides other programs and services to support NS/EP efforts across federal, state and local government and critical infrastructure industry. One key program is the SHAred RESources (SHARES) High Frequency (HF) Radio Program. The SHARES Program provides emergency communications to the federal government using HF radio when all other means of communication have failed or been disrupted.

     The NCS used SHARES heavily during Hurricane Katrina. For example, a telephone call came into the SHARES radio room on September 1, 2005, from a civilian radio operator in Maryland. The person said that there were students stranded on the fifth floor of a building at Xavier University in New Orleans. SHARES coordinated with the Coast Guard air traffic control unit, which was positioned in Mobile, AL, at the time. They, in turn, passed the information to rescue flight helicopters in the New Orleans area. The Coast Guard was able to rescue 100 students from this location.

     It is estimated that SHARES passed 3,000 emergency messages and situation reports for the federal sector during the first 72 hours of the Katrina response. SHARES also worked closely with state and civilian emergency communications organizations to assist and facilitate approximately 50,000 emergency messages for the first week following the hurricane's landfall.

     Participation in SHARES is open to all federal, state and industry agencies and departments and their affiliates on a voluntary basis. Organizations that elect to support the nationwide network identify HF radio stations for entry in the SHARES Directory. These stations agree to use standard radio operating and message formatting when handling SHARES traffic and participate in national exercises conducted three times annually to ensure SHARES operational readiness. Today, SHARES has 96 federal, state and industry organizations involved in its operation, and has over 1,100 HF radio stations in the program located throughout the United States, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

     To learn more about all of the programs and services offered by NCS, visit www.ncs.gov, or call 866/NCS-CALL (866/627-2255).

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