BY JOHN CARROLL
As the communications officer for Florida Task Force 1 (FL-TF1), my first thought when I was notified of the Oklahoma City Bombing was that the task force could be mobilized. I called my office and had my assistant begin charging batteries and configuring the cache for a search and rescue mission.
It wasn`t until Friday that I received a call from Oklahoma City. I was asked to respond but as a member of the incident support team (IST), FEMA`s overhead team already on the ground coordinating the incoming task forces.
I arrived on Saturday along with Chief Cindy Sears from Metro Dade (FL) Fire Rescue. When we arrived, we found the IST working hard in the basement of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
I was to assist Mark Deputy from VA-TF2 in the role of communications officer, which was not an easy task based on the number of teams already on the ground and those en route. Deputy had been busy acting alone for three days. As soon as I arrived, he briefed me and we made plans for the next shift`s work.
Deputy and I had worked together before at “Rescue 90,” a drill in Montgomery County, Virginia. We both had been involved in the design of the task force communications cache, so our ideas on how to operate in this type of incident were very similar.
We had a very interesting mix of responsibilities in a job role that was still evolving. We were to provide the communication assets for the IST, act as spectrum manager for the incident, and try to provide additional equipment and supplies to the task forces to meet their communication needs.
The main problem that came up almost daily was nonstandard communication caches. All teams are supposed to operate on low UHF 403-420 MHz, but for the most part this was not the case. Teams came to our desk daily to present us with their communication plan. There were VHF, high UHF, and 800 MHz. One team had a frequency normally used for a UHF TV station. Only a few teams had equipment that would operate in the approved frequency range.
This made networking very difficult. Fortunately, in most cases, the frequencies the teams wanted to use were vacant and, in low-power applications, did not cause any interference with adjacent users. The Oklahoma City Fire Department was using 450 MHz; the last thing we wanted to do was interfere with its operations.
We used a scanner and the spectrum analyzer from my cache to monitor the frequencies being used and to try to keep some order.
I had been asked to bring 30 handhelds from my cache to issue to the IST. Since my task force had been mobilized, however, I had to bring radios from our department`s spare fleet. Again, we were able to use the service monitor and find two vacant frequencies.
The IST used one channel; the other channel was used to coordinate the movement of slabs of concrete and debris between the teams and the heavy-equipment operators.
When my task force team arrived (FL-TF1), this gave the IST additional equipment from which to draw. I installed a base station from the IST to the Myriad, the convention center where the task forces were staging. My team also installed a repeater on the roof of the Myriad to cover the general operating area.
We used a 35-watt repeater, in the approved frequency band, with a 9.2-dB omni directional antenna. This worked so well that it served as a community repeater. I advised any team that could do so to tune to it and use it for team coordination.
Unlike other incidents in which I participated, telephones were not a problem in Oklahoma City. Southwestern Bell provided dial tone service wherever we wanted it.
Cellular telephones were also provided. A series of COWs (cells on wheels) were installed in the area around the site, so we always had service. In fact, the phone service was so reliable that I continually had to remind people that this was the exception to the rule. Normally, there is no phone service, especially cellular. Whatever surviving telephone plant there is will be blocked by anyone carrying a cell phone. The teams plan to use INMARSAT satellite systems and wireless tripsites in future incidents of this nature.
At the task force level, we learned several things:
1. A common frequency plan must be designed and adhered to.
2. A holster or radio harness is a must. The working area may be tight, and loose wires from speaker mics can be dangerous.
3. Use of phones in forward areas is beneficial, keeping radio traffic to a minimum.
4. Multiple channels on a single site can help reduce confusion with specialty teams.
5. Some type of headset or earpiece is necessary when working around heavy equipment.
Overall, the equipment list for task force communications caches provided by the communications steering group is very close–only a few additions are needed.
Several of the task forces that responded were able to order components of their communications caches while in Oklahoma City. This was a benefit because task force communications officers had the opportunity to see equipment on-site that was working properly and were able to order identical equipment.
The role of the IST communications officer was realized. We hope this position can be further developed along with a dedicated IST communication cache. n
JOHN CARROLL is the officer in charge of the Tactical Communications Group for the Metro Dade (FL) Fire Rescue Department. His responsibilities include communications systems and personnel for the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA)-sponsored international disaster response team, communications for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Florida Task Force 1 (FL-TF1), and all special projects communications for the Metro Dade Fire Rescue Department.