Thinking Regionally

Following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, West Baton Rouge officials set out to tackle interoperability for emergency response communications between the parish, port and other interagency groups at the local, state and federal levels.

by / July 15, 2008
West Baton Rouge

When hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast, the West Baton Rouge Parish and Port of Greater Baton Rouge were unprepared to become the hub of rescue and relief operations.

But as it turned out, the port of Greater Baton Rouge was the only deep-water port on the Mississippi river that had not sustained any storm-related damage from the storms. Plus, the parish is in close proximity to Interstate 10 and rail lines, which made the region the impromptu post-Katrina headquarters for emergency and rescue operations for emergency relief and aid coming throughout the United States. The port was quickly inundated by diverted vessels, residence ships and emergency supply ships, becoming a staging area for emergency equipment, supplies, food, water and fuel being sent to the ports of New Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish. The West Baton Rouge area became a central location for rescue operations.

The port could only rely on its communications system used during regular business operations including cell phones, Internet, marine radios, and communications from river pilots and other emergency personnel and evacuees.

"All of these forms of communications were intermitted in their service, if they worked at all," said Larry Johnson, past president of the Greater Baton Rouge Port Commission. "These agencies were inundated with calls and requests for assistance from everywhere. Responding to the disaster came down to identifying and using available resources and people helping people."

When the proverbial smoke cleared, local officials realized that coordinating rescue and recovery efforts through communications between the parish, port and other interagency groups at the local, state and federal levels was needed. Johnson opened up communications with local agencies and officials to help create interoperable communications. He looked to his neighboring state at Harris County, Texas, which had a highly successful interoperable communications system.

Harris County Texas is the third largest county in the U.S., covering 1788 square miles and includes Houston, the fourth largest city in the U.S. Harris County currently has an impressive regional communications network with 133 channels and 17 tower sites serving Harris County and parts of eight other counties. The system supports approximately 32,000 users and 512 agencies with a coverage area larger than most states. Two new counties are expected to join the network in 2008, which will increase the user base to 35,000 and 550 agencies. Regional subscribers include federal, state and local public safety and law enforcement agencies, fire departments, public works departments, cities, counties, public schools and university systems, as well as the Texas Medical center and private air ambulance services.

"We built this system on the concept of sharing and pulling resources and frequencies so that we can base all frequencies across multiple infrastructures to provide the most enhanced function and use of frequencies," said Steve Jennings, CIO of Harris County. "We're looking at a holistic management system."

The system was built in 1989, when Harris County had a patchwork of more than 15 different independent radio networks. With the help of Motorola it took only nine months that year to build an 800 MHz network to consolidate and centralize those systems into a six-channel system.

"One of the things about having different radio systems that are incompatible is, living on the Gulf Coast, we knew communication was absolutely critical," Jennings said. "There are lots of instances that require resources beyond the scope of any jurisdiction."
After the initial system was built, Jennings realized that the 800 MHz system built by Motorola was powerful enough to serve neighboring counties. Harris County then expanded to a 25 channel system.

Jennings now compares the communication system to a utility company, where frequencies can be allocated in select areas across large territories. Agencies that join the network pay a monthly service fee and get spectrum access, tower capacity and technical assistance. Member agencies continue to control their own communications

while maintaining standard operating procedures, but have access to more than 130 frequencies at an affordable cost.

The system proved to be an invaluable resource during both Katrina and Rita, when federal, state and local officials seamlessly communicated.

"With Rita coming down we had one of the biggest evacuations in history with 2.4 million people in 24 hours in the Harris county and Houston area," Jennings said. "One of the best things about the coordination is we had no communication problems."
Jennings hopes that eventually the regional public safety communications model will expand to complete statewide interoperability, engaging all government agencies across the state.

At the National Association of Counties Technology Summit on March 3, 2006 in Washington, DC, Jennings gave a presentation entitled "National Association of Counties Technology Summit on March 3, 2006."

Johnson and Riley "Pee Wee" Berthelot, the Parish President of the West Baton Rouge Parish Government, were inspired and asked Jennings to help them come up with own regional communications system for the West Baton Rouge Parish and port. The goal of the project was to eliminate redundancy of services and improve equipment and communications systems.

Jennings recommended that the parish broaden its emergency response communications project to include neighboring jurisdictions and establish a new governing board to fund, establish, and operate this regional communications center. Jennings met with the prospective stakeholders in West Baton Rouge and surrounding jurisdictions to explain and promote the communication system centered in Harris County.

In 2006 a seven-member Central Communications Commission was created by the West Baton Rouge Parish Council, comprised of the parish president, mayors from the municipalities, port commission, fire department, and one representative from business and industry. The Communications Commission has the responsibility of setting policies, oversee funding and stewardship of the project.

At the time the West Baton Rouge sheriff's office, municipal office and fire departments all had separate dispatch functions. The radio system had poor coverage areas and no available space for expansion. While all the parish public safety agencies are interoperable by being on the same radio system, there was little or no interoperability with surrounding jurisdictions.

All the port assessments from the maritime community and river pilots suggested the need for improved communications and a central command center for emergency response from multiple agencies. The commission and local emergency response agencies determined they wanted a central facility that could house interoperable communications between multiple agencies, much like the facility in Harris County.
The commission outlined a plan for a central location at the port region where all agencies that respond to emergencies could come together including local, state and federal law enforcement, U.S. Attorney, U.S. Corps of Engineers, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, FEMA, NOAA, Wildlife and Fisheries.

"We realized we can't be an island anymore and can't expect people to come help us in an emergency because they can't talk to us," said Anthony Summers, assistant director of the West Baton Rouge Office of Homeland Security, Emergency Preparedness and 9-1-1. "A lot of agencies abandoned the isolated mentality and are getting to where it's all a collective effort to be able to communicate statewide, region-wide and parish-wide."

The parish created the West Baton Rouge Parish Communications and Interoperability plan as a solution to mission critical communications, addressing radio, emergency telephone, and data communications, as well as plans to create a faciltity to house emergency operations.

Since resources are limited at the small parish of West Baton Rouge, to fund the project citizens passed a new communication tax to fund the project. The parish also applied for every available grant dollar on the state and federal level for communications, systems and emergency response.

West Baton Rouge parish was successfully awarded numerous grants including more than $4 million from

Homeland Security and the Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) for emergency response, as well as $1.1 million to fund the West Baton Rouge Parish Emergency Operations and Communications Center (WBR Parish EOCC). The West Baton Rouge Port applied for grants to construct a Maritime Security Command Center (MSOC) and was awarded $1 million from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Port Security Grant Program, and an additional $2 million was secured from the State of Louisiana Capital Outlay Appropriations. The port will also use $250,000 of its own funds on the project.

The first stage toward a new communication system for the parish is to build a new 480 foot communications tower that can hold approximately six antennas. The second stage of the plan is to purchase and install an 800 MHz/700 MHz radio and paging system, much like the system in Harris County. The radio system will have interoperability with parish, state and federal agencies through an interoperability device populated with radios from surrounding jurisdictions and with nationwide mutual aid channels. The interoperability device will also have the capability to link to systems in other parishes by using VOiP technology.

The next stage is to establish what is dubbed by parish officials as an "advanced traffic management/emergency operations center/emergency communications center." The building will be located at the Port of Greater Baton Rouge in an existing building that will be remodeled with funding from the State Capital Outlay. The three-story building will hold the regional Emergency Operation Center, Coast Guard Operations Center and Emergency Operations Center for the Port Of Greater Baton Rouge.

The building will also hold the administrative offices of West Baton Rouge Homeland Security, Emergency Preparedness and 911, the MSOC, and EOCC. It will be large enough to accommodate all staff during a disaster in the Emergency Operations Center.
The MSOC will help the port by providing interoperable communications and holding everyone in one structure, which will vastly improve communications in the event of a disaster. For the West Baton Rouge Parish emergency response, housed on the first floor, the EOCC will help coordinate disaster response in the port and the region.

The next stage will be the construction of a private IP Wireless wide area network for the parish. The secure wireless network will link the Parish Courthouse, the Parish Administration Building, the Law Enforcement Center, the Work Release center, the EOC/ECC Building and tower site, the main fire station from each one of the six fire districts, and include the mobile command post for the towns of Addis, Brusly, Port Allen and all other shelter locations.

The final phase is the creation of a mobile data terminal system and records management facility. The system allows calls to be dispatched without going over the radio system, the tracking and displaying of emergency vehicle locations, and maps of an area when dispatched. The fire department will be able to access detailed preplans, inspection records, and hazardous materials listings of commercial and industrial occupancies when on the fire scene.

While no emergency response agency in the West Baton Rouge area has ever experienced this kind of collaborative effort, parish officials are looking eagerly forward to interoperable communications between emergency responders. And when the next big storm hits, West Baton Rouge is hoping to be overly prepared to be the headquarters for disaster management.

"All of us working together on a common goal, creatively thinking, were able to maximize resources, improve multi-agency communications and improve communications and systems for better emergency response for the benefit of our citizens in West Baton Rouge Parish as well as help our neighbors," Johnson said. "This is a good partnership between West Baton Rouge Parish and the port. It took a tremendous cooperative effort."

Photo by Alex C. Balla. Creative Commons License Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic


Chandler Harris Contributing Writer