Baton Rouge, La., Boosts Interoperability with Regional Approach

Officials tackled interoperability for emergency response after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

by / October 6, 2008

When hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Louisiana's 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, Greater Baton Rouge was the only deep-water port on the Mississippi River that hadn't sustained storm-related damage. Plus, the parish is close to Interstate 10 and rail lines, which made the region the impromptu post-Katrina headquarters for emergency relief and rescue operations. The port was quickly inundated by diverted vessels, residence ships and emergency supply ships. It became a staging area for emergency equipment, supplies, food, water and fuel being sent to the ports of New Orleans and St. Bernard and also 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, other emergency personnel and evacuees.

"All these forms of communications were intermittent in their service, if they worked at all," said Larry Johnson, current member and former 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 communication between the parish, port and other interagency groups at the local, state and federal levels was needed. Johnson worked with local agencies and officials to help create interoperable communications. He looked to neighboring state, Texas - specifically Harris County, which had a highly successful interoperable communications system.

Follow the Leader
Harris is the third largest county in the United States, covering 1,788 square miles, and includes Houston, the fourth most populous U.S. city. The county has an impressive regional communications network with 133 channels and 17 tower sites serving itself and parts of eight other counties. The system supports approximately 32,000 users and 512 agencies with a coverage area larger than most states' total land area. Two additional counties are expected to join the network this year, 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 and 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 the county had a patchwork of more than 15 different independent radio networks. With the help of Motorola, it took only nine months 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 network was powerful enough to serve neighboring counties. Harris County then expanded to a 25-channel system.

Jennings 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 affordable access to more than 130 frequencies.

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

"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 comprehensive statewide interoperability, engaging all Texas government agencies.

Motivational Speaker
At the National Association of Counties Technology Summit on March 3, 2006, in Washington, D.C., Jennings gave a presentation about the interoperable communication system.

Johnson and Riley Berthelot, president of the West Baton Rouge Parish Government, were inspired and asked Jennings to help them create a regional communications system for the West Baton Rouge parish and port. The project's goal was to eliminate redundancy of services and improve equipment and communications systems.

Jennings recommended the parish broaden its emergency response communications project to include neighboring jurisdictions and create a 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 communications system centered in Harris County.

In 2006, the West Baton Rouge Parish Council created a seven-member Central Communications Commission, composed of the parish president, mayors from the municipalities, port commission and fire department representatives, and one representative from business and industry. The commission sets policies and oversees project funding and stewardship.

At the time, the West Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office, municipal offices and fire departments all had separate dispatch functions. The radio system had poor coverage and no room to expand. While all the parish public safety agencies operated 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 Harris County facility.

The commission outlined a plan for a central location at the port region where all emergency-response agencies could come together, including local, state and federal law enforcement, the U.S. Attorney, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"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 911. "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, regionwide and parishwide."

Plan in Motion
The parish created the West Baton Rouge Parish communications and interoperability plan as a solution to mission-critical communications - addressing radio, emergency telephone, data communications and plans to create a facility to house emergency operations.

Since resources are limited at the small parish of West Baton Rouge, citizens passed a new communication tax to fund the project. The parish also applied for all applicable state and federal grants for communications, systems and emergency response.

The West Baton Rouge Parish was awarded numerous grants, including more than $4 million from the U.S. Department Homeland Security (DHS) and the Technology Opportunities Program for emergency response and $1.1 million to fund the West Baton Rouge Parish Emergency Operations and Communications Center (WBR Parish EOCC). The Greater

Baton Rouge Port applied for grants to construct a Maritime Security Operations Center (MSOC) and was awarded $1 million from the DHS Port Security Grant Program, and an additional $2 million was secured from Louisiana's 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 480-foot communications tower that can hold approximately six antennas. The plan's second stage 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 link to systems in other parishes using VoIP technology.

The next stage is to establish what parish officials call 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 Operations 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.

The MSOC will help the port by providing interoperable communications and putting everyone in one structure, which will vastly improve communications during 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 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 lets calls be dispatched without going over the radio system, tracks and displays emergency vehicle locations, and shows maps of an area when dispatched. The fire department can access detailed preplans, inspection records and hazardous materials listings of commercial and industrial occupancies when on a fire scene.

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

"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."

Chandler Harris Contributing Writer