Monday, May 14, 2007

Heed the lessons, please

Right now, the largest mass-casualty exercise ever mounted in this country is underway in Indiana.

I have taken part in some pretty intense mass casualty drills over the years, but nothing like this. (Mostly because we have never done anything even close to this before.)

Every single mass casualty I have taken part in over nearly two decades, communications broke down every damned time. It was a problem that cost untold lives in New Orleans; and it got a bunch of firemen killed in the World Trade Center because their radios didn’t receive the warnings that the buildings were going to come down that were broadcast from police units. (That will bite Rudy in the ass before this campaign is over. I‘ll be bringing it up regularly. It is not just another post, but a future recurring theme.)

Ask any cop, emt, firefighter, or ER staffer and they will tell you – if the shit hits the fan, we’re fucked. And it’s going to be worse than it has to be because communication is going to break down. I won’t be surprised if choppers collide as a result if the real deal takes place.

Reading the Washington Post piece in this mornings paper, this is the part that I seized on - In one tent, Capt. Kevin Jones of the Kentucky Guard manned a satellite communications network able to patch together radio systems used by local police, firefighters and the military -- a critical function absent during Katrina. Twenty-five such teams exist nationwide, with one planned for each of the states. "We can allow anyone to communicate with anyone," said Jones, whose team has had its equipment less than a year.


"We want to see where this is going to break," said Air National Guard Lt. Col. Kim Sencindiver, who trains the 45-person medical teams that are part of each response force. "These guys have been out here three days -- they're tired."

The exercise showed new response capabilities, but it also revealed ongoing problems: radios and phones that malfunctioned, too few aircraft and slow reaction times.

That is the link that always breaks. In the event of the real thing, the satellites are going down, and we all know it. Relying on any form of communication that depends on satellites in a drill is a wink & nudge proposal, and we all know it.

We are not the only members of the “we-can-shoot-down-satellites” club. Hell, you don’t even have to actually blow one up – blow something up in it’s path and create a debris field, and chances are pretty damned good that you can disable your target. The math could be done by a smart high schooler. Definitely by a college sophomore majoring in physics or astronomy.

My point is – their solution to this problem is no solution at all. When the link breaks, for the last decade or so, we have been falling back on our own phones. If we know that a mass casualty is planned, we make sure we have our chargers, because we know electricity isn’t going away in the hospitals – we have generators, so charging our phones does not cheat the rules. Except that if the real deal takes place, either terrorists on the ground will take out relay towers, the satellites will be compromised, or the air will be ionized.

We know damned good and well that those who wish us ill are aware of this problem. A problem that those of us who use the damned system have been aware of and bitching about for years, only to have the politicians who control the pursestrings listen politely, mouth some platitude or another, and then resume ignoring us, and give the contracts to their friends, and it ends up costing the lives of our co-workers. (I’m looking at glaring at you, Guilliani. How bout those radios? Or putting your terrorism command center in the basement of the WTC after the 1993 attack? Let’s do examine your terrorism track record. Carefully. Behind the rhetoric. I can’t wait for that feeding frenzy. Hoo boy.)

Every major city in the country has a study on some shelf in city hall or police headquarters that is collecting dust. If Homeland Security wants to do something that would make sense and justify their existence, they should collect those reports and start an analysis, and they should take the steps to mandate a standardized communication system. It’s absolutely stupid that we don’t have that. It’s frankly a no-brainer. This is one of those things that is just too damned important to be left to the vagaries of the free market. But that is exactly what has happened, and it has cost the lives of men and women who serve you first-hand here at home, the people who show up when you call 911.

The party that gets us a working comm. system that won’t crash immediately if something we think about so you don’t have to comes to pass - will have the endorsement of every police, firefighter and nurses union in the country for decades.

If they get it to us in time.

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