A devastating Category 4 hurricane sweeps through Hawaii from the south to the north hitting all the islands and knocking out communications on Molokai. What do we do?
This is the scenario presented in the 2014 Makani Pahili (strong wind) exercise conducted by the Hawaii State Civil Defense from June 1-6. To help prepare, a unit of the California Air National Guard came to Molokai Monday morning with a warning that the hypothetical hurricane will touch the islands that night.
Unit 147 — a U.S. Air Force combat communications squadron out of San Diego — came with gear and supplies to set up a command and control center at the National Guard armory near Molokai General Hospital. Armed with laptops, phones and a work station, this team of seven communication specialists was able to create a wifi communication system to help pull us through this worst case scenario disaster.
While these exercises have been conducted by the HSCD since 2007, this is only the second year that a unit has actually come to Molokai. The National Guard unit used the Kaunakakai Fire Station as its command center.
“We take disaster preparedness seriously,” said Molokai Fire Inspector Rick Schonely. “Anytime we can get together and do an exercise it is a bonus for first responders and the entire community. The training and exercises went very well, the public should be comforted to know that we are very ready in case of an emergency.”
If an emergency did hit, this National Guard unit would be able to set up video teleconferencing and radio communications for both military and commercial purposes through its satellite system, according to Master Sergeant Daryl Kinney from Unit 147. This system would allow all first responders to talk to each other while still providing commercial communication channels for the Red Cross, media outlets, utility companies and local residents. “Our system can bridge the gap between up to 10 different frequencies,” said Kinney. This system can also bridge landline communications, Kinney added.
For this year’s exercise — always conducted at the beginning of hurricane season — National Guard units are coordinating their communications between all the islands, with two units on Oahu, two on the Big Island and one on all the other islands.
Disaster scenarios are usually developed and broadcast by county officials and it is up to the National Guard to respond quickly and effectively. For instance, a Maui harbor is inaccessible and a wastewater treatment plant loses power. The communications unit springs to action and sets up a mobile repeater to establish a video feed from the Civil Air Patrol flying overhead. These are the types of efforts that can save lives and protect the environment in the event of a natural disaster.
These types of scenarios also allow emergency responders to test its MERCI (Mobile Emergency Response and Command Interface) software system. This app can be purchased and downloaded at iTunes for anyone with an Iphone or Ipad. The app allows the HSCD to rapidly document and assess a natural disaster to allow for real-time analysis in coordination with GPS tagging. “This is really taking social media to the next level,” said Kinney.
In the event of a real emergency in Hawaii, Unit 147 or some other National Guard unit would be ordered to respond by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Hawaii is grouped with California and other West Coast states in FEMA Region 9. Once a communication system is established, any resident could use it to call loved ones and seek help.
Another communications tool being tested in this exercise is the BGAN (Broadband Global Access Network). This small, lightweight and battery-powered box can be set up remotely to pick up satellite signals from virtually anywhere to establish phone connections.
Many of these improved communication systems for domestic and commercial purposes were developed after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005. First responders were hampered by not having these communication systems available.
By using this equipment, as well as remote satellite dishes and wifi antennas, the National Guard can assist HSCD in a variety of ways. With these new systems we are all better prepared for emergencies, said Kinney.