Harris County’s P25, LTE Networks Critical to Hurricane Harvey Response, Recovery
Tuesday, September 12, 2017 | Comments
Other than a few sites that flooded because of unprecedented water levels, the Harris County, Texas, LMR and Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks withstood Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath, which included more than 50 inches of rain, county officials said.

The county operates a regional Project 25 (P25) network called the Texas Wide-Area Radio Network (TxWARN).

“The network performed well,” said Shing Lin, director of public-safety technology for Harris County. “We did have some locations that had really high water. Our engineering team found a way to get to them during the storm and bring them back up. We didn’t lose any communications although the sites did go down briefly. We had capacity issues more than anything else.”

Within the core system, two sites went down because of flooding in the shelters that killed the primary and backup power. A county engineer reached one of the sites on a borrowed jet ski and fixed the battery backup system. The other site — which had 45 inches of water — required engineers to wait for the water to recede.

“You’re talking about flooding that’s never been seen before,” said Jim McMillan, senior manager of communication services for Harris County Public Safety Technology Services.

McMillan was the communications leader (COML) along with Greg Jurrens from Harris County, who acted as the regional coordinators for the Harris County radio system. McMillan and his teams were constantly monitoring the network during and after the event. “We worked really close with city of Houston and surrounding agencies’ COMLs to ensure that we were all sharing available resources without interfering with each other,” McMillan said.

The county issued loaner radios and assigned interoperability channels for communications on the TxWARN system or the National Interoperability Field Operations Guide (NIFOG) channels as necessary. Response teams came from New York, California and other locations. The county and its partner agencies had cache radios to give to the helping agencies, programmed to have all the interoperability channels for the system.

“Some would bring their radios, and we would ascertain the capabilities and make assignments based on who they needed to talk to,” McMillan said. “We could program them on the system if needed or let them borrow cache radios. It was mostly a lot of small tactical teams.”

Harris County also coordinated with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the primary public-safety answering point (PSAP). The sheriff’s office has an 18-wheel trailer called joint operations command with 10 to 12 call-taking positions that was used because the main facility had to be evacuated.

“We leveraged public-safety LTE as backhaul for their call-taking,” Lin said.

In addition to the sheriff’s office using the county’s public-safety LTE network for connectivity, county workers at the NRG Energy Stadium, which was used as a shelter, connected to the LTE network.

“We have good coverage there, and it was easy to set up,” Lin said.

Lin said he saw an uptick in LTE use during the recovery but not during the event. “My personal theory is the first response community is so well trained in the tried-and-true LMR method,” he said. “When the disaster hit, that was everybody’s instinct, other than agencies where we built deployable hot spots for them so they could plug in and go. Our sheriff’s office mobile command units — they are used to public-safety LTE as it is part of standard operations — so they were immediately on public-safety broadband. As a practice, we’re trying to adjust to having data.”

County officials used many of the same apps during the hurricane as they did during the Super Bowl in February. Those apps allowed them to send photos, and Sonim Technologies dual subscriber identity module (SIM) cards allowed officials to travel outside the network’s band 14 coverage and roam onto commercial networks.

AT&T staged a cell on wheels (COW) next to the county’s COW because the water was rising quickly. “It was a backup in case we lost network connectivity, and they brought the COW in early, set it up and had it ready to deploy,” McMillan said. “Once we felt comfortable we weren’t going to lose connectivity, they called and wanted to deploy it somewhere else. They really stepped up there.”

The city of Houston's Project 25 (P25) network also withstood the storm with only one site going down completely.

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