GUEST POST WRITTEN BY Ronnie Johnson
Mr. Johnson is Col. (ret.) in Louisiana’s Army National Guard. He was Director of Information Management during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Eleven years ago, I served as head of communications and later Brigade Commander of the Louisiana National Guard during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I saw firsthand what nature could do. Amid floods of Biblical proportions, cars, houses and all sorts of property were swept away by the rising waters. People either fled for their lives or clung to makeshift rafts made of anything that could float.
And our troops, some of the best-equipped in the world, could not communicate with each other in the field. All of the commercial wireless networks went down amid the devastation, and were no more available for our first responders than they were for citizens trying to make and receive calls to loved ones.
Today, Louisiana is once again under water. And while some commercial wireless networks have fared better than others, the communications failures during this month’s flooding are a reminder, yet again, of why our first responders need a resilient, reliable and purpose-built wireless network.
The First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, was created in 2012 to fulfill the final outstanding recommendation of the 9/11 Commission—a nationwide, interoperable communications system for emergency services. That network is not yet built, but in the coming weeks the federal government will make a decision about how to deploy that network. And recently, FirstNet has come under fire in the media. The project has been called “obsolete,” unnecessary, a boondoggle. But done right, FirstNet will be none of those things. And the flooding we’re experiencing now shows yet again why our emergency services can’t afford to rely on commercial wireless carriers when disaster strikes.
I still remember how difficult our task was without simple cellphone service in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As first responders and National Guard forces from Louisiana and other states positioned and repositioned in response to initially Hurricane Katrina, and shortly thereafter Hurricane Rita, communications was a serious challenge. Forced to rely on short-range organic communications systems severely hampered rescue operations.
Longer-range communications, those able to communicate from one metropolitan area to another, those able to communicate across the state, were largely inoperable. Sufficient redundant long-range communications systems took several days to get in place. Thanks to some American ingenuity, we cobbled together emergency comms using commercial spectrum and deployable equipment. It worked, but we might not have needed it if we’d had a network hardened against the kind of natural disaster that we all knew Louisiana faced sooner or later.
The government created FirstNet with the idea that emergency services needed a modern broadband wireless network on which first responders were the landlords, not tenants on a commercial system. Under the terms of the legislation, that network will be shared with commercial users—but on first responders’ terms, not the wireless industry’s.
Four and a half years later, FirstNet faces a choice. If it remains true to its mission, it has the opportunity to provide our first responders with a modern, high-speed network built to public-safety standards. Done right, that network will repay that investment both in lives saved and in revenue generated by sub-priority commercial use, and the naysayers will be proven wrong.
If on the other hand FirstNet hands that spectrum over to one of the commercial carriers that have failed in disasters so often before, it will have given up on the promise of what FirstNet might have been.
In New Orleans 11 years ago, I never thought it would have taken this long to get to this point. The wheels of the federal government turn slowly. But with FirstNet seemingly poised to start making a difference, the flooding in my home state reminds us again why we decided we needed this network in the first place.