Fast, accurate information critical for tribal governments in emergency planning

FEMA Region 10 Emergency Communications Coordinator Laura Goudreau calls Washington state's Emergency Operations Center via radio to test alternate communications capability. Having multiple ways to communicate means operations can continue when parts of the system fail. Photo: FEMA.

ICT editorial team

First Responders need to answer questions, make sure information flows in timely fashion

Debra Utacia Krol

Special to Indian Country Today

When disaster strikes — or even an emergency such as a blizzard, multi-vehicle crash or a lost child — fast, reliable communications are a key component in managing the situation. In most of the U.S., first responders and the public don’t have to worry about getting rapid information. However, that hasn’t always been the case in Indian Country. To remedy this, tribes are working hard to ensure that emergency calls are answered swiftly, and that tribal communities receive information about food and shelter, medical care and detours around that big car crash in a timely fashion.

But, how fast are these systems coming on line? Are backups and redundancy built into emergency communications systems? What about non-tribally owned assets such as cell towers on tribal lands? And what old-school communications can help bridge the gap when everything else fails?

“What’s your plan? What’s your goal?”

“Most tribes have some sort of communications plan,” says Nathan Nixon, emergency preparedness coordinator at the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona. “One thing I always ask (when developing or enhancing a plan) is, ‘What is your goal?’” Whether it’s a robust radio system, a 911 system or other emergency response system, tribes need to know what they need and want from their system.

Nixon notes that several federal and state agencies are offering technical assistance, developing cooperative agreements and training to develop or enhance emergency communications.

SAFECOM, housed at the Office of Emergency Communications at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, helps tribal governments determine what they need and how to acquire the resources to put their plans in place. SAFECOM’s role is to support inter-agency emergency communications both locally and internationally.

Their tribal office helps tribal first responders to build or improve their communications in several ways. The agency first profiles the tribe’s communications needs and current capabilities while determining any gaps. “SAFECOM will assess what’s working, what’s not and what other systems are in place in the community,” says Nixon.

After the profile is complete, SAFECOM organizes a workshop based on the results of the profile. During the workshop, tribal emergency managers learn how to access emergency communications related resources and services from DHS at no charge. These services assist with emergency management and national security emergency preparedness communications issues, training, processes, planning and implementation. The profile also serves as a resource for tribal leadership in the process of communications planning, resource management and the grant application process.

DHS also has created the Communications Section Task Force, which coordinates with tribes and the National Congress of American Indians.

Nixon advises that tribal governments have an emergency coordinator, manager or director. “It’s money well spent,” he says. “Having the right person in place, assessing your situation and bringing in the experts to evaluate your plans helps ensure that your tribe won’t be stuck with the bill.”

Many states also understand the need to coordinate with their neighboring tribes to better manage emergencies, and many include tribes in statewide planning. In Arizona, the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, or DEMA, partners with tribes to provide coordinated responses to emergencies ranging from lost children to raging wildfires. “We provide resource sharing and support to tribes,” says Joseph Urrea, DEMA’s tribal liaison. “We engage with tribes to provide assistance with training, plans, exercises and drills.” Also, about half of Arizona’s 22 tribes are signatories to the state’s mutual aid compact, Urrea says. And, DEMA provides technical support to tribes in setting up communications programs such as the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, and Amber Alert.

Also, the First Network Authority is working with contractor AT&T, states, tribes and other governmental entities to create a nationwide first responder wireless network. The system is an internet-based, high-speed mobile network on the 700MHz frequency public safety spectrum that gives priority access to first responders. Already, Nixon says that many first responders use wireless-enabled tablets to confer with emergency physicians, access treatment protocols for injuries and communicate with other agencies.

“What’s on your hill?” Ensure that communications towers and tribal radio station working

The FirstNet wireless network as well as other communication systems depends heavily on the antennas sited on hill and mountain tops. These towers support more than just cell service—they also bounce internet signals, radio waves and even video to satellites and neighboring towers, yet they can fail during a prolonged emergency. “How much does a tribe know about the cell towers on their tribal lands?” asks Nixon. “You should be asking questions about what they have for backup power—do they have a generator for backup? How much fuel capacity does the backup have? How long can the generator produce power before it runs out of fuel?”

Nixon also advises how to “harden” tribal emergency communications systems to provide backup and redundancy to keep first responders and their community informed. “Does your 911 system have battery backup?” he says. “How about land lines—have you asked your telephone company about backup power?”

One tribal radio station that has taken that advice to heart is KIDE-FM, the Hoopa Tribe’s radio station. “We’re solar powered,” says station manager Joseph Orozco. “In fact, we were the first solar-powered station in California.” However, the station also has backup power, courtesy of the tribal casino’s emergency generator, and KIDE is one of the priorities to receive fuel during an emergency. “Emergency communications is the reason we have a radio station,” Orozco (Hupa) says. “Whether the emergency is high water, fire or a storm, we’re informed.” And KIDE was included in Hoopa’s emergency plan.

Even a coastal tsunami is in the station’s plan. “We’re connected to the tsunami warning system as well as the Emergency Broadcast System,” Orozco says. “We have tribal members who travel to the coast and they would need to know if a tsunami is coming.”

In the event of an emergency, KIDE would cease its normal broadcast schedule and go live with regular updates. One year, KIDE was one of just two Humboldt County radio stations on-air, keeping the remote tribal community informed.

Social media and old-school emergency communications

“Social media could be your best friend or your worst enemy,” Nixon says. “Tribal agencies should have a social media presence and manage it well.” During times of emergency, social media is another communications tool for emergency managers and media alike, he says.

But, as Nixon points out, redundancy doesn’t have to mean having the latest tech, though — it could be a simple as a windmill or a solar panel, a deep cycle battery and a ham radio. Hams are known for their volunteerism during emergencies, he says, and with licenses growing easier to obtain, tribes can take advantage of this old-school communications method. Nixon regularly demonstrates ham radio’s capabilities and flexibility at conferences, and he started the National Tribal Amateur Radio Association to serve as a resource for tribal members, employees or other community members to study for the license and obtain ham gear.

“There’s no worry about limited waivers of sovereignty, memoranda of understanding or any other impingement on sovereignty,” says Nixon. “Ham is a local source you can rely on.”

In fact, Nixon says, “It can be a tool of self-governance. When everything else it out, hams can still operate. Having that peace of mind, knowing you have those people and equipment in place to keep your community informed, is empowering.”

​Debra Utacia Krol, Xolon Salinan Tribe, is a freelance journalist based in Phoenix.