2010 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Joseph P. Casey and Paul D. Coburn

Created a method to detect whether communications systems are still operable immediately following a disaster, enabling emergency responders to rapidly deploy back-up communications.

In the midst of major disasters—hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes or terrorist attacks—first responders’ ability to rescue survivors and save lives can be severely impeded if important communications systems are disrupted or destroyed.

Two Federal Communications Commission (FCC) employees, Joseph Casey and Paul Coburn, have stepped into this breach to help federal emergency management personnel, hospitals, fire departments, rescue workers and law enforcement officials by making sure that communications outages that occur during a crisis are quickly detected and restored.

The unique system created by the two men, known as Project Roll Call, so far has been used in two hurricanes, two tropical storms and was available for use in the event of a disaster or terrorist attack during the Vancouver Olympics this past winter. The system also was deployed to Haiti in January to assist in the earthquake response and recovery efforts.

“Project Roll Call takes a snapshot of selected radio communications before and after a disaster and compares them using software and technology to see what infrastructure is still standing and what was knocked out so that we can know where to direct immediate government assistance,” said Coburn. 

The system came into play in 2008 during Hurricane Ike when a team, led by Coburn, documented the damage to communications systems on Galveston Island, Texas. After January’s devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti, an FCC team deployed a Project Roll Call unit to assist with efforts to clear interference and determine which radio frequencies were available so that U.S. and international rescue teams could efficiently coordinate efforts to help survivors.

“It is both gratifying and humbling to know that we helped save lives with this technology. I am proud to be part of something that made a difference to so many people when they needed help the most,” Coburn said.

Before the development of Project Roll Call, the federal government did not have adequate means to rapidly assess the post-disaster status of communications systems. After severe communications problems arose during Hurricane Katrina in 2006, the FCC was asked to help.

“We really didn’t have a sufficient way to identify what communications were still working and which were not—first responder communications, mobile networks, broadcast stations—and what the immediate response priorities should be,” said Kenneth Moran, deputy chief of the FCC’s public safety  and homeland security bureau.

Within a matter of months, Casey and Coburn, both working for FCC’s public safety and homeland security bureau, essentially created a new and reliable detection system from scratch. Using existing technology, they melded together receivers, spectrum analyzers, antennas, computers, software and databases that enable them to rapidly determine which communications systems in an area are operational and which are not.

The system allows engineers to track public safety land mobile radio systems, which first responders rely upon; broadcast systems, which are often the primary manner for government to communicate emergency information to citizens during a disaster; and commercial wireless systems, which citizens in a disaster area rely upon to communicate with family, friends and neighbors. The system can scan for communications systems within a 30 mile radius.

The detection equipment is portable and fits conveniently in the back of an SUV. Coburn has been dispatched on numerous occasions to lead FCC field teams, driving to disaster scenes or flying in, quickly setting up the system and doing complete communications scans within three to four hours.

If there is advance warning, such as a hurricane, the FCC teams can do the baseline tests and then have points of comparison following a re-scan of the same area after the storm passes. Casey has led the analysis teams at FCC headquarters, processing the data, analyzing the results, and sending the information to the federal emergency managers in the disaster area.

“The real benefit of this is to rapidly get the information back to the federal government so we can best assist rescue and recovery efforts immediately after a disaster,” said Casey. “As soon as the information is collected, we transmit it back to headquarters, process it and send maps and data to the Federal Emergency Management Agency office for assessment and action.”

Project Roll Call is supported by a team of FCC engineers and specialists in Washington, D.C., but Casey and Coburn are the heart and soul of the operation.

“After Hurricane Katrina, Paul and Joe started working on the project. They just started pulling equipment off the wall to figure out how they could make it all work together,” said Jamie Barnett of the FCC’s public safety and homeland security bureau. “They are tremendous public servants. They saw a real need and took a ‘we can do this approach.’”