Senate Calls For Better Hurricane Communication

Steve Delahousey doesn't think anybody died in south Mississippi during Katrina because of communication snafus.

"No, absolutely not that I can tell," he said while sitting in his AMR office.

But down the hall, there was always that fear inside the ambulance service's dispatch center. Patrick Stiver was on duty during the hurricane. He remembers the frantic calls, and "the feeling of helplessness, not knowing whether your people were still there or whether they were gone."

Delahousey credits local politicians for purchasing the right radio equipment long before a storm like Katrina roared toward the coast.

"We had good local communications," he said.

AMR had access to police and fire radios. So most local law enforcement teams could talk to each other during the worst moments of the storm.

"Our 800 system stood the test," said Gulfport deputy chief Alfred Sexton, referring to the radios Gulfport uses to talk with its officers. "Even during the height of Katrina, we were still able to communicate out to the police officers in the field and them to us."

According to Delahousey, the problem the U.S. Senate highlighted has little to do with local communication.

"Outside of the area, we had a difficult time talking to the rest of the world," he said.

Phones were down, satellites didn't work. And outside radios weren't compatible with many of the local systems. Paperwork addressing that problem is now sitting on Delahousey's desk. He chairs an FCC committee that's looking into better ways to communicate during a disaster.

"We're working on that. Hopefully there will be some improvements by the next hurricane season," he said.

So far, Delahousey's committee has come up with three recommendations. It wants money allocated to improve technology in dispatch centers. It thinks the media should be used more to get out important emergency messages. And the committee wants to find a way to link radio systems, so different agencies can talk to each other during and after a storm.

Delahousey isn't sure that's possible.

"I don't think we'll see that happen in our lifetime," he admitted.

Nevertheless, Delahousey and his committee will keep looking for a communication solution. He's very aware that getting outside recovery resources to hurricane victims as soon as possible could be the difference between survival and disaster.

Delahousey has until June 15th to finalize his committee's recommendations and send them to the FCC. If the FCC accepts the communication changes, he expects them to be sent to Congress.