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Disaster Preparedness 2011: Bridging the communications gap after a catastrophe

Scott Stuckey

When natural disasters strike or catastrophic man-made events occur, existing infrastructure is often disrupted or compromised; power and communications frequently fail and personal contact can become difficult. Rural areas may become isolated and urban areas impassible and dangerous. Maintaining civil order, implementing evacuations, conducting rescue operations and providing relief distribution becomes highly problematic.  

Facilitating communication with acoustic hailing devices (AHDs)

Long range acoustic devices (LRADs) provide civilian authorities and National Guard support personnel a highly effective communications system to clearly broadcast critical information, multi-language instructions and warnings into affected areas over distances up to two miles, in any type of environment and terrain. Ground-based or helicopter-mounted AHDs can be used to warn of pending disasters, evacuate populations, direct survivors to aid stations, warn of contaminated food and water supplies, announce evacuation routes and assembly areas for rescue operations, and other critical warnings and information.

In areas of civil unrest, LRADs can assist law enforcement to create standoff and safety zones, turn back looters seeking to take advantage of dire situations, support the resolution of uncertain situations, and potentially prevent the use of non-lethal or deadly force.

Vastly superior to bullhorns

Bullhorns and megaphones have proven to be ineffective for communication over distance on land or when used in attempting to communicate to survivors from helicopters. The sound emanating from most bullhorns disperses quickly and is difficult to hear and understand above the ambient noise inherent in emergency response activities or over helicopter rotor wash. Also, because of their short broadcast range, bullhorns require greater manpower to operate during disaster relief operations.

Using advanced sound reproduction technologies and innovative acoustic materials, LRAD systems are vastly superior to bullhorns in loudness, intelligibility and broadcast distance. AHDs require significantly less manpower to deliver instructions and warnings over larger areas, mitigating the number of disaster relief personnel deployed in disaster situations. AHDs free civilian authorities and law enforcement from having to go door-to-door, neighborhood-by-neighborhood to pass along emergency instructions so that they can attend to more critical duties.

Putting AHD’s to work

After catastrophes, the demands on public safety resources are often stretched beyond their limits. Law enforcement agencies, first responders and humanitarian relief organizations are finding AHDs highly effective in communicating into buildings and vehicles to warn the population before eminent disasters and to communicate quickly over large areas in their aftermath. 

AHD’s communicate messages and warnings in a variety of disaster situations, including:

o   Potential for tornadoes, hurricanes, aftershocks, tsunamis or landslides;
o   Contaminated water or disease warnings;
o   Possible flood surges;
o   Blocked evacuation or egress routes;
o   Location of aid stations;
o   Arrival and distribution of relief supplies;
o   Availability of rescue resources in the area;
o   Instructions to residents (stay/evacuate - unsafe/cleared routes);                                                   o o   Curfew warnings, clearing streets and establishing restricted areas

Such AHD broadcasts can:
o  Help calm civilian populations;
o  Help control or disperse crowds;
o  Provide mass communication over wide areas;
o  Resolve uncertain situations and potentially save lives.

Successful implementations

As mainstay equipment for military and commercial security operations, thousands of LRAD systems have been successfully fielded since their introduction in 2003. Answering a variety of communications needs, the devices are designed to be cost-effective, portable, rugged and easy-to-operate. LRADs are self-contained communications systems and do not rely on external infrastructure.

The first use of AHDs in the wake of a disaster occurred in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and its environs. LRAD systems were mounted on helicopters and used to communicate to those stranded by floodwaters on tops of cars and houses, while ground-based units were utilized for mass notification around the Superdome.

In 2010, the U.S. military deployed LRAD systems in Haiti to assist in communicating with earthquake survivors. Military personnel used portable, lightweight systems to communicate to survivors gathered around aid stations. Larger systems were deployed on helicopters to deliver messages to survivors regarding the locations of aid stations and supplies across earthquake ravaged areas.

Earlier this year, LRAD systems were used for mass notification and search and rescue operations after a major earthquake and tsunami struck coastal areas in northern Japan.

In response to a recent tornado that passed through the base and revealed deficiencies in their fixed mass notification equipment, the fire department at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri recently purchased a LRAD system.