Rich Cooper

Mar 11, 2010

In what was one of his typically colorful appearances, ret. US Army LTG Russel Honore, the famed “Ragin Cajun” of Hurricane Katrina fame did not disappoint the assembled audience of the 4th Annual DHS University Network Summit. Before a packed hotel ballroom of PhDs, graduate students, DHS S&T leaders, industry reps and more, Honore dropped one-liners and candid, colorful observations that literally had the audience roaring in laughter. Amidst the laughter though were some very frank observations about our nation’s preparedness and overall resilience posture.

While challenging the assembled participants to invent “stuff that would make them rich” (e.g., better power generators, etc.) to address the range of threats we have to deal with, he spent considerable time describing the role that patriotism has in our national resilience. In articulating his views, Honore’s pragmatic approach took no prisoners when he unleashed his thoughts about what we are not doing and what we need to correct fast. One area he trained his verbal crosshairs on was communications.

He observed that “we need to get off land-based systems” and “need to harness the power of satellites.”

If this had been a church, I would have leapt to my feet and screamed, “AMEN!” (Instead, I just sat quietly, grinned broadly and shook my head in affirmation)

Sharing his first-hand experiences of what happens when there is large scale devastation from a wide-scale disaster (e.g., 2005’s Hurricanes Katrina & Rita), communications is the first thing knocked out, leaving everyone in the dark.  

He observed that with the recent earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and Turkey, their land-based communications systems were entirely wiped out. As a result, these countries were scrambling for satellite communications gear to help them begin their response and recovery efforts. (Need proof?  When Sec. of State Hillary Clinton made her brief visit to Chile after their recent earthquake, she brought with her over thirty satellite units to help the Chilean Government restore emergency communications across the country)

Before moving on in his remarks, Honore expressed his own frustration that we have yet to learn this fundamental lesson and keep repeating the same mistake again and again. He could not be more on message.

We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading, improving and in some places, outright purchasing whole new interoperable communications systems and related equipment across this country for our first responders, Federal, State, Local and Tribal emergency operations centers and more. The overwhelming majority of those purchases have been for traditional land mobile radio systems with satellite radios and related communications equipment being a small pittance in comparison.  

As someone who has had the privilege to work with the satellite communications industry in both the public and private sectors, I have observed firsthand the inherent indifference, negative attitudes and in some notable places, outright prejudices against this technology. All you have to do is look at DHS’ own lack of R&D investments, disaster exercises and incredible lack of engagement on using these technologies to see how the Department we have tasked to build and execute our national contingency plans continues to put all of its eggs in one basket.  Furthermore, the existing national communications strategies barely make any reference to or even inclusion of satellite communications technologies.

All of this could be described, as LTG Honore has so eloquently stated before, as “stuck on stupid.”

Every communications system has its limitations, and satellite communications is no different. But as we have seen time and again from disaster after disaster, communications is often the first thing lost and the first thing we need to respond effectively to the unfolding circumstances. If we continue our existing self-destructive, reinforced legacy approach and maintain an over-reliance on land mobile radio systems, we should expect no difference in outcome when disasters strike.  That, by any measure, is not acceptable.  

Until we begin to follow the advice of people like LTG Honore and others like him, learn from the countless examples we have in this country (e.g., Katrina, Rita, Northridge earthquake, Kentucky’s ice storms, etc.), and provide a more balanced communications approach, we will remain “stuck on stupid.” That’s an honor I think we would all like to pass us by.

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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