Where's N.O.'s new communications systems?

While entrepreneurs have created cheap, distributed, standards-based alert systems, state spends hundreds of millions on technology that may not get the job done.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor

Remember, in the aftermath of Katrina, all the talk about creating a state-of-the-art communications system for New Orleans, one that would instantly kick in, connect government agencies and leaders and get the word out to residents? As with so much else regarding Katrina, New Orleans is still waiting, Wired News reports.

Rep. Tim Burns (R-Mandeville) says "politics" are delaying deployment of a rapid-response emergency communications system. He sponsored legislation to require the state to set up a system, but says the governor's office is ignoring the possibilities of the Internet. "They're focusing on a radio-based system, which could cost hundreds of millions," he said.

Burns' team estimated that a text-messaging system like the one successfully employed by the Swedish government to evacuate thousands of citizens from Lebanon could be set up for $20 million in less than six months. His bills, HB540 and HB619, passed the Louisiana House but were killed in Senate committee.

Other ideas are even cheaper. A local ISP, I-55, designed a disaster-communications system that would push information to cellphones, pagers, online chat systems and PCs. They say it could be set up for a mere $2 million and operated for $1 million a year.

The FIRST (flexible immediate response and safety technology) system is designed to collect information from people on the ground to build an up-to-date, accurate database. High-priority or geographically connected messages are grouped to prioritize disaster communications. The system could also accommodate sudden and massive demands during an emergency. And in the future, levee sensors could transmit developing faults, providing early alerts about potential breaches.

Ezra Hodge, co-creator of FIRST, said he was ready to set up a FIRST-style system before the 2006 hurricane season arrived. "It's astronomically perplexing why this didn't get done," said Hodge, "Homeland Security met with us and said they needed us. We had lunch with Gov. (Kathleen) Blanco (in May) -- she said it was one of the most brilliant ideas she'd heard since the storm and wondered why it's not being done."

The story from the Governor's office is different these days. Mark Smith from the state's Department of Homeland Security, says communication has basically been solved.

"When I go out into the field, I'll take a 700-MHz and an 800-MHz radio, cell phone, BlackBerrry and AirCard for the laptop," said Smith, whose job during an emergency will be to ride herd on the media. He says cell-phone carriers have "hardened their towers -- they're supposed to be able to take a hell of a lot more during a storm."

His agency has purchased three trailer-mounted, voice-over-Internet-protocol satellite-communication systems. If a local jurisdiction loses its connectivity, one of these can be brought in by truck or helicopter and be up and running within 30 minutes, according to Smith. He added that the National Guard and the state police have "all kinds of new communications toys."

But will they work together? Do they actually address getting the word out to residents? And how much do all these toys cost? According the Louisiana State Police, more than $500 million and $10 mil a year to operate. Government is so efficient.

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