Posted by: craigrcampbell | January 21, 2008

Face to Face Communications

US Coast Guard, LCDR Mike McKean

My final interview of the week was with Lieutenant Commander Mike McKean of the United States Coast Guard.  I was especially excited about meeting him because the men and women who serve in the U.S. Coast Guard were outstanding heroes during the search and rescue efforts after the storm and the levee breechings. 

The Coast Guard is accredited with having the most efficient response because of two major reasons:  preparedness and comparatively functioning communication abilities.  I asked LC McKean why they were so prepared unlike every other department.  His answer was simple; they treat every Hurricane as if it were that one big one.  They moved their assets out of New Orleans to a predetermined center in Alexandria, LA and evacuated their families and prepared themselves for Mother Nature.

The breeching of the levees, however, was a surprise even for the Coast Guard.  Despite their readiness for the Hurricane, they too found themselves struggling for new ways to operate.  While their towers were still standing, connection was destroyed and left them to unconventional features such as Nextel’s “Push-to-Talk” and commercial Internet.  At one tower, in fact, they had a team manually relaying the messages.  And, in sync with every other department, the saturated 700mhz and 800mhz frequencies limited radio use.  Regarding communication, I believe the Coast Guard would have been in as rough a position as everyone else if they had not moved their command center out of Metairie.  Knowing that Hurricanes are destructive, Mike McKean emphasized that redundancy is the saving grace in situations mimicking Hurricane Katrina.

McKean had an interesting perspective that we had not yet heard until speaking with him.  He emphasized the need to not only search and rescue, which was their first priority, but also to get United States commerce based in New Orleans back on its feet.  The Mississippi river needed to be functioning before the corn harvest began.

As far as knowing where to go and who to save, McKean said they would fly or take a boat and just start picking them up and moving them to higher ground.  One lesson they learned was to establish predetermined drop points and know, before the search and rescue began, which ones were still available.  He also said that working with unofficial first responders was sometimes difficult but generally worked well because of the neighbor-like relationships they had.

In general, the Coast Guard was not aware of the work of the United Radio Broadcasters and they relied on their own systems to guide their rescue efforts.  LC McKean did admit that it is important to have liaisons stationed with broadcasters to send information to the public.  Out of all the different ways they passed information along, LC Mike McKean said that the best communication they had, the best communication any department has ever had, was face to face.

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