DHS Personnel Offer Communications Support in Puerto Rico
Tuesday, February 27, 2018 | Comments
At the end of 2017’s brutal hurricane season, Category 5 Hurricane Irma pummeled the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in September with wind speeds up to 185 miles per hour (mph), making it one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded. Not only were emergency personnel forced to flee their previously secure shelters, their communications lines were all down. The electric power grid for government, homes, churches, schools and businesses blacked out, and the island’s citizens were in desperate need of assistance.

Chris Tuttle of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) deployed to the territories in Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Region II, which include the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. He led staff supporting the Emergency Support Function (ESF) #2, communications annex, to restore essential communications in these hard-hit areas. At the regional response coordination center, his team set restoration priorities and coordinated response efforts to support the LMR and 9-1-1 systems, as well as other short-term restoration plans. These teams established communications in hospitals, public-safety answering points (PSAPs) and other critical services. They supported emergency personnel by airlifting private digital radios and mobile emergency response vehicles into the region. These crews also served as FEMA’s eyes and ears, as they were the only consistently reliable touch point on the ground restoring communications.

Two weeks after Hurricane Irma hit, Category 5 Hurricane Maria ransacked Puerto Rico. Tuttle carried the lessons learned from the event in the U.S. Virgin Islands and conducted close coordination with ESF #15, external affairs, to provide essential information to those affected in Puerto Rico who had no power or communications. This included mission assignment and coordination with the Department of Defense’s Chemical Agent Identification Sets (CAIS) unit and coordination with the FEMA Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) program manager.

Jim Jarvis relieved Tuttle to lead ESF #2 functions in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. He continued the support to public-safety agencies on efforts to leverage satellite systems to communicate with emergency personnel and set up communications plans for FEMA and the emergency management assistance compact teams to restore essential communications services.

Jessica Kaputa, OEC’s ESF #2 restoration task force lead, coordinated with other professionals on the ground, such as commercial telecommunications carriers, the Puerto Rican power authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for expedited power restoration of key telecommunications facilities and synchronized utility pole repair. She also coordinated priority air and sea transport for telecommunications equipment and personnel.

Wes Rogers, a communications specialist for OEC, was a lead for restoring public-safety LMR. He provided rapid planning and deployment of an islandwide radio network to support federal personnel. He also coordinated with the U.S. Air Force’s 85th Engineering Installation Squadron to deploy a team of tower climbers to fix damaged antennas on radio towers. With U.S. Secret Service, he guided FEMA’s Mobile Emergency Response Support personnel on a mission to assess and restore LMR communications used by the Puerto Rico Police Department, Fire Department, Emergency Medical Service and Emergency Management Agency throughout the island.

Dan Hawkins, OEC coordinator for Region VIII, also provided disaster response to Puerto Rico, leading a 10-person team assigned to stand up contingency communications efforts for the joint field office and FEMA branch offices around the island. The team operated high frequency (HF) data and voice under the National Coordinating Center for Communications SHAred RESources (SHARES) HF program. Through SHARES, national security and emergency preparedness personnel used HF radio to transmit messages when landline and cellular communications were down. The team also conducted HF radio assessments, training and exercises with Puerto Rico National Guard units throughout the island.

The work performed by DHS and other personnel in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and other hard-hit areas around the U.S. supported a significant portion of the systems restored, which enabled many public-safety officials to communicate and assist those in need.

DHS’s OEC trains and prepares federal, state, local, tribal, territorial and industry partners on methods to restore priority communications services that fail during disasters. With the help of FEMA, the team ensures that wherever disaster strikes there are people on the ground who can help communities to quickly bounce back.

Ken Bradley is with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) Office of External Affairs. Contact him at kenneth.w.bradley@hq.dhs.gov.

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