Posted by: craigrcampbell | January 11, 2008

3,000 Users on Five Channels

The United Radio Broadcasters were one of many heroes of the Katrina catastrophe, the men and women of the New Orleans Fire Department were overcoming their own communications radio obstacles in the on-going relief efforts. Tom Levy, Director of Communications for the New Orleans Fire Department, spoke with us today about his experiences.

When Katrina hit, Levy was in a different position within communications at the fire department and he worked to not only prepare the back up communication system before the hurricane hit, but also react and make the necessary repairs for the failures that occurred as a result of the unexpected levee failures. Because of Director Levy’s work and the preparations of the entire department, communications were never completely lost during the storm.

According to protocol, however, the Fire Department was forced to shut down their rescue teams during any wind forces consistently stronger than 40mph. Unable to perform the most essential task of a fire department, Levy and his department found themselves listening to calls begging for assistance and not being able to do anything to help them.

Once the levees broke and all standard emergency communication systems stopped functioning, public safety officials found themselves nearly muted by minimal communication abilities.

Shocked by the storm and divided by the flood, the individual precincts of the devastated parishes were unable to reach any type of central command center to reorganize and rescue. Like posses of the Wild West, firefighters did their jobs as best as they could. The only interaction they had was given to them from an open spot on one of the five, 800MHz channels available.

With over 3,000 public safety users, open lines were extremely rare. Several difficulties resulted from the inconsistent communication. One particular story that I remember is about the water drops that privately owned helicopter companies subcontracted by the federal government were dropping over flaming buildings. The helicopter pilot was using a different radio system and the fire department couldn’t communicate with them. Without that communication, firemen were left working in the same location tons of water were being dropped onto the building. Director Levy said that his men described getting hit by some of the falling water as causing a stinging pain. Levy worked to resolve the problem and ultimately had their radio signal piped into the helicopter’s cockpit speakers.

We also learned some other innovative ways of fighting the fires that were happening all over New Orleans. At one point, because the fire hydrants were no longer functioning, the firemen actually pumped the floodwater into their hoses and sprayed it onto the flames.

Later on in the interview we asked Levy about his personal experiences with broadcast radio. He told us that because there were no radio receivers in their fire engines they weren’t able to use the broadcast information as a tool while they rescued victims.

Director Levy did however affirm what Dick Lewis of Clear Channel told us on Friday morning. The radio is like light: you don’t miss it unless its gone. Initially, Tom Levy couldn’t tell us that he had listened to the radio while driving to and from work, but as he thought about it he realized that he did in fact turn the radio on and listen for reports about progress as he drove to work each morning. He described the broadcasts as giving him comfort.

He also mentioned that they had learned a great lesson in not having HAM radios where they worked. Because cell phones and landlines went down, Levy and the rest of the department were unable to reach their families and find out how they were. If only they had a HAM radio to relay messages for them they would find themselves much more at ease. Now the communications building has both a military and a HAM radio for their own personal use as men and women with families and loved ones need to make contact in an emergency.

It was interesting for all of us to finally hear some perspective from a safety official rather than a professional broadcaster. We are finding out what it was like for men on the ground and we understand how important it was and is for good communication to be available so that the people who need to help others can do so.

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