During Hurricane Rita in 2005, Harris County and Houston staged one of the biggest evacuations in history, with 2.4 million people vacating the area within 24 hours. And they did it without communication problems, thanks partly to Harris County CIO Steve Jennings and the countywide 800 MHz trunked radio system.
Harris County's neighbors didn't fare as well, and after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated Louisiana's West Baton Rouge Parish and Port of Greater Baton Rouge, the areas' officials looked to Jennings and Harris County for insight on interoperable communications.
What they found was a regional communications network with 133 channels and 17 tower sites serving 11 counties; a system that supports nearly 35,000 users and more than 500 agencies with a coverage area larger than many states' total land area. Subscribers to the network include federal, state and local public safety and law enforcement agencies, fire and public works departments, cities, counties, public schools, university systems, the Texas Medical Center and private air ambulance services.
As CIO of Harris County, Jennings also oversees an IT staff of more than 16,000 employees at 278 locations. The county serves nearly 4 million residents. That's a lot of IT needs, and Jennings fulfills those needs by concentrating on a few key points: creating a robust and secure infrastructure to ensure bandwidth; modernizing application delivery; and reorienting the organizational culture to adapt to increased mobility and a new generation of workers joining the public sector.
That approach creates what Jennings calls a flexible, fluid network to fit the needs of the customer.
Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management magazine. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout.
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