La. Parish Seeks SMS Relief

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August, 2005, police and fire department personnel from Jeff Davis Parish in southwest Louisiana were among those who headed to the city to help. They quickly found that the only viable way to communicate was text messaging via their cell phones.

"I know that from experience," says Jeff Davis sheriff Ricky Edwards, "because my son was down there trying to get into New Orleans with a boat, and I could communicate that way."

A month later, Jeff Davis Parish got its own taste of a destructive hurricane when Rita hit the Gulf Coast near the Texas-Louisiana border. Hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed, communications were difficult or non-existent, and electricity was down across the parish -- a rural area of 30,000 people -- for four days.

At that point Edwards, who holds a degree in computer science, began looking for ways to insure that he could communicate with emergency managers, first responders, and the local citizenry in the event of a natural disaster. The result is the first text-based emergency alert system on the Gulf Coast, the Alert Network provided by Arlington, Va.-based Roam Secure. (See Opportunity From Disaster.)

The Roam Secure Alert Network is designed to continue working when much of the critical infrastructure in an area has been damaged or destroyed, including landline or cellphone voice service. Because text messaging requires so little network capacity, says Ned Ingraham, Roam Secure's vice president of homeland security services, it will function under extreme conditions.

"What we found with Katrina was that, while the phone companies lost 85 percent of their infrastructure, a great deal of which is still not restored, [text-based services] were back up and running within days, with portable cell towers."

While Roam Secure has deployed dozens of emergency systems for local communities and the federal government, Jeff Davis is the first community in the so-called hurricane belt to launch a network of this kind. Edwards and his administrative staff can add specific groups, such as local fire departments and hospital staff, to the network; individuals sign up via a Website. In addition to using the system to issue critical notices such as evacuation orders, road closures and the like, the Roam Secure system will be used to broadcast school bulletins and other more routine messages.

Jeff Davis Parish paid $71,000 for the Alert Network, with the money coming from fiscal-year 2004 Homeland Security funding. The system has been operational for a month and so far, with no advertising beyond word-of-mouth, 213 people in the parish have signed up.

"My goal is to have seven or eight thousand people signed up by the end of this year," Edwards adds.

In fact, the sheriff is helping push text-based emergency alert networks across the hurricane belt. A bill to make such networks mandatory and provide funding for them died in the Louisiana state senate last spring. A similar system has been tested in New Orleans, but the city has yet to install its own emergency alert network.

"We're a small rural parish, but we wanted to be leaders in this technology," says Edwards. "I hope it catches on in Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast."

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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