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9-1-1 Magazine: Managing Emergency Communications

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New Communications Center Vital Element to Harris County Emergency Operations

Date: 2015-04-17
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Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management new communications center.

The Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management (HCOHSEM) exists to prepare and protect its residents from disasters of all kinds.  During an emergency, HCOHSEM activates its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to support and coordinate emergency operations, and to keep stakeholders and the public informed.

In 2014, HCOHSEM acquired additional space at Houston TranStar, to better accommodate staff and provide a larger and more efficient EOC to serve its more than 4.3 million residents.  Because backup communications are vital during an emergency, a new state-of-the-art Communications Center (CC) was also designed to complement the new EOC.

“HCOHSEM constantly works to develop new internal systems that further improve emergency operations,” said Harris County Emergency Management Coordinator Mark Sloan. “Our new Communications Center is the technology component; it provides the equipment and systems needed during disaster operations.”

Without solid communications during a crisis, it would be impossible to provide assistance to local governments and incident managers in the field, and very difficult to inform the public. 

In addition to providing and prioritizing resources during an activation, HCOHSEM’s Logistics section maintains and staffs the CC.  Both the EOC and the CC are connected to three automatically switching 800 KVA emergency generators and a 50 KVA UPS for surge protection and continuous operation. Some of the systems available in the CC are:

  • Radio communications consoles with capabilities on all public safety frequencies
  • Amateur radios (multiple bands)
  • Short and long range High Frequency communications with federal response agencies
  • Several modes of secure satellite communications
  • Emergency Alert System/PIES Radio
  • Backup telephone system
  • Group text messaging server
  • Fax machines
  • Internet
  • Hazardous materials response databases
  • Commercial facility emergency plans and maps
  • Radio tower to support radio equipment

During an emergency, HCOHSEM coordinates with regional, state, and national operations centers through a host of systems and back-up systems, including the Internet, video-teleconferencing, satellite phones, 800 MHZ radio, short-wave/amateur radio, and local, state, and national warning/notification systems. Working with partners such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the United States Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has created a tertiary communications capability that is unique in public safety communications.

“In 2014, we enhanced our Military Auxiliary Radio Systems to become Department of Defense compliant,” added Sloan.  “This allows for direct communications to networks with official national security or emergency preparedness events.”

When disaster strikes and modern technology shuts down, HCOHSEM utilizes Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) ham radio for backup communication needs.  Through the commitment to emergency service set forth by HCOHSEM, ham radio has served as the backbone of emergency communications and continues to be an important tool for the EOC.  Staff has been trained in radio operations and several employees have received their Amateur Radio licenses.  HCOHSEM’s radio experts meet regularly to practice the art of radio communications and enhance their ability to provide and teach emergency communications support in the event of a disaster. 

All logistics team members are trained in radio communications and licensed amateur radio operators. L to R: Joshua Glover, Mark Guzman, and Joey Clements operate from TranStar.

“We trained more than 300 radio operators in 2014. That is three times the number from the previous year,” said HCOHSEM Logistics Chief Joey Clements. “Texas is second nationwide in the number of licensees, with more than 50,000 amateurs. By utilizing the DHS AUXCOM class, we have trained a cadre of hams in public safety systems.”

HCOHSEM works closely with local amateur radio operators who help monitor the airwaves during emergencies. They have, in fact, been there in virtually all disasters in recent memory. Hurricanes, fires, ice storms, floods and so on. According to the American Radio Relay League, amateur radio operators have been providing communications in natural disasters for more than 100 years.

HCOHSEM is a national model of best practices in emergency planning, preparedness, response and recovery.  In a dynamic region with more declared disasters than most states, the formula for success is the engagement of all levels of government, the business community and volunteer organizations.  HCOHSEM’s newest upgrades improve emergency operations not only in Harris County, but throughout the region.

- People, Places & Things/9-1-1magazine.com (via HCOHSEM, 4/16/15)

 

 

 

 

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