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----------------------------------Can you hear me now?
Diane Linderman, director, Urban Infrastructure & Development Services, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc.
Technology's great—when it works. When it doesn't—like when a natural disaster destroys cell phone towers and power lines—people slip each other handwritten notes and e-mail back and forth on wireless devices like BlackBerries. (This actually happened during Hurricane Katrina.)
Even if communication infrastructure isn't destroyed, fire, police, and public works personnel can't talk to each other during disasters because they're literally on different wavelengths: Many public safety departments use digital equipment, while public works uses older analog technology.
Resolving this breakdown in communications has become Linderman's mission, spawned by hurricane cleanups she oversaw as former public works director for the city of Richmond, Va. First, working with the leaders of two neighboring counties, she developed policy and operational disaster-response protocol that maintains the autonomy of each municipality while outlining their specific roles. Then, the city spent $20 million to integrate the communication infrastructure of first responders.
This year, as the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, loomed, Linderman took her cause to the federal level. In February, she asked the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Science, and Technology to give radio communications grants specifically to public works. Department of Homeland Security grants don't always trickle down to cities and, when they do, it's never enough to support a department-wide technological upgrade.
“The Federal Emergency Management Agency is working hard to improve coordination between all levels of government, but they're not where they'd like to be five years after Sept. 11,” says Linderman. “We need to get the right people together at the same table. And it can be done.”
— Stephanie Johnston