The City of Houston, Harris County and Montgomery County built a fully interoperable emergency management communication network. Montgomery County’s network was built independently of the Houston/Harris County network, and all three governments coordinated to ensure that networks were interoperable and continue to rely on one another for increased operational effectiveness. Previous networks required responders to carry multiple radios to communicate across jurisdictional lines; otherwise, responders were unable to communicate outside of their jurisdiction. Responders believe these upgraded operational communication capabilities saved countless lives during Hurricane Harvey.
After 9/11, first responders across the nation recognized a need to develop better interoperability among communication systems. In the Houston region, those systems were further tested by numerous natural and man-made disasters, prompting the region to identify widespread capability gaps in interoperable communications capabilities. These identified gaps have propelled robust efforts to improve the Houston Urban Area’s communications interoperability. Notably, the Houston-Harris County Joint Radio Facility project resulted in the two jurisdictions sharing facilities and resources in the operation and maintenance of a common regional radio communications system. The city and county invest $6.8 million annually in local funds to staff the facility; additionally, $3.2 million in Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) funding is invested annually to maintain and enhance the systems. The radio shop houses network infrastructure for both jurisdictions’ radio systems. The networks serve all 13 counties of the Houston-Galveston Area, which includes the Houston UASI, and have the capability to share services with neighboring counties. Further, the networks are interoperable across local, state, and Federal agency networks.
Harris County also made substantial improvements to its Long Term Evolution (LTE) communications systems. Since FY 2010, Harris County has invested $27 million total—$16 million in the Port Security Grant Program (PSGP) and $11 million in local funds—to build a broadband communications system that primarily covers Harris County. During Hurricane Harvey, Harris County’s broadband system was used by multiple local, state, and Federal responding agencies across the affected areas to reduce the amount of voice traffic generated on the public safety regional Land Mobile Radio System. It also increased operational efficiency by giving the responders the ability to send data-centric updates to the field. Harris County continues to implement lessons learned from unplanned disasters like Hurricane Harvey and planned events like Super Bowl LI. The region’s innovation has impacted national paradigm shifts towards increased incorporation of data into operational plans.
A radio technician accesses a tower site to conduct emergency repairs during Hurricane Harvey.
In addition, Montgomery County has invested $30.5 million total—$27 million in local FY 2009 – 2011 funds, $1.5 million in FY 2004 and FY 2007 UASI funds, and $2 million in FY 2010 Assistance to Firefighters funds—to replace the county’s disparate, aging, and outdated radio systems with one interoperable 700/800 P25 system that ties into the Houston Harris County regional radio system. Because the system is tied into the region’s P25 LAN Mobile Radio system, county officials were able to communicate efficiently across county boundaries with other responding agencies to coordinate a region-wide response. Before having the 800-megahertz (MHz) system, any teams operating outside of Montgomery County would have been operating without communications, and teams inside the county would have needed to carry multiple radios to communicate across response components. County officials stressed the importance of this new 800 MHz system during Hurricane Harvey response and recovery operations, noting that having all operating agencies on the same system significantly improved communication and efficiency of response compared to disaster operations just a year prior. Currently, the county is investing an additional $20 million of its own funding to upgrade equipment—including radios— and implement new security protocols.
These communications investments provided several benefits during Hurricane Harvey response. Redundancies built into the networks enabled network engineers to manage three distinct damaged towers without causing any network disruptions or outages. Further, the joint Houston-Harris County facility provided and programmed approximately 300 radios to outside police agencies—such as the San Antonio Police Department—assisting in response efforts through mutual aid agreements with jurisdictions whose own equipment did not have the same interoperable capability. In total, these networks supported approximately 9,800 additional radios to sustain the increased network traffic from local jurisdictions and mutual aid partners both from within and outside of Texas. This increased capability improved the efficiency of disaster response efforts. Local officials consistently noted the stark improvement in ease and efficiency of communication from past tropical event operations— including Tropical Storm Allison, Hurricane Katrina, and Hurricane Ike—to those during Hurricane Harvey.i
i FEMA, National Preparedness Assessment Division. Stakeholder Interviews with representatives from Texas. September 2018