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As hurricane season starts, telecoms want changes to law

Existing laws create uncertainly, bad decisions about the role of companies and nonprofits in disaster areas.
Written by ZDNet UK, Contributor
Today starts hurricane season. And, reports News.com, big telecom companies are demanding the government change the way it responds to natural disasters. A federal panel will report on the issue in two weeks.
One answer would be to change federal policy and recognize telecommunications workers as "emergency responders." That designation would let them work more closely with authorities on the scene and to obtain "nonmonetary" federal help, such as security escorts and "priority" access to fuel, water and shelter.

Leaving existing federal rules unchanged "could certainly hamper our ability to respond to our customers--both commercial customers and government customers," said David Barron, BellSouth's associate vice president for national security.

BellSouth was worried during Katrina that a crowd of people outside its main New Orleans facility would seize their building and damage the fragile network even more. "We had our own security forces that really were overextended and overwhelmed," Barron said. "Our facilities were physically being threatened. Gunshots were fired."

But its request wasn't immediately fulfilled because bureaucrats decided it might run afoul of the Stafford Act--and BellSouth was forced to evacuate its employees from the Poydras Street building.

By the third day after the storm descended, BellSouth had opted to bring in enough private security hires to get "a lot of essential things moving," spokesman Bill McCloskey said.

Only after the company was able to reach government officials "who had a more liberal view of what they could do under the Stafford Act restrictions and (cleared away) some of the red tape," McCloskey added, did the feds send U.S. marshals to escort company workers back to the main building, which serves a number of nearby government institutions and military bases. Those security forces ultimately stayed on the scene for a couple of weeks.

And there are other problems. Because companies are not designated emergency responsders, corporations couldn't stop government officials from confiscating truckloads of fuel and other supplies, directing them away from damaged communications sites to other unknown locations.

"You don't get access, or you do get access but only get halfway to where you're going, or someone commandeers your materiel," said Dave Plessas, Sprint Nextel's vice president for network operations. "And it's a very confused situation because everyone's working from their own priority sheet."

There are two legal authorities that guide emergency response rules. One is the Stafford Act, which governs government response to disasters. The other is the detailed National Response Plan, created by DHS. The telecom companies argue that government officials conservatively interpreting Stafford during Katrina got in the way of companies trying to help.

There's some evidence that the Bush administration, already subject to wide-ranging congressional scrutiny over missteps during Katrina, is heeding the telecommunications industry's advice.

"I think there's a sense at DHS that the language is in place, the understanding is in place, to make sure providers get access more quickly in the aftermath of storms that may occur during the coming season," said Verizon's Hickey.

It's less likely that Congress, with an abbreviated election-year calendar, would meet the telecoms' bigger goal this year, which is amending the Stafford Act. But they don't intend to give up yet.

"At the end of the day," said BellSouth's Barron, "we're very concerned that if push comes to shove, we're going to be right back into the debate about the Stafford Act, which is the law."

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