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  • Albert LaFrance
    Following is an article from Federal Computer Week (source URL - My understanding is that MERS was
    Message 1 of 2 , May 19, 2000
      Following is an article from Federal Computer Week
      (source URL -

      My understanding is that MERS was originally designed to assist in recovery
      from a nuclear attack. If so, it's interesting that the article makes no
      mention of that.



      Mobile Emergency Response Support

      FEMA's high-tech vans drive cities' rebuilding efforts


      he day before the Federal Emergency Management Agency's quick-response team
      rolled into town, the swollen Red River crept over a dike and turned Grand
      Forks, N.D., and its sister city, East Grand Forks, Minn., into a
      3-foot-deep lake. FEMA's Mobile Emergency Response Support (MERS) team
      couldn't stop the damage that the flooded river would exact on the towns.
      But the team could help residents pick up the pieces, and for many of the
      residents, it seemed that pieces were all that remained. Property damage
      reached $1 billion. In East Grand Forks, all but 27 homes were inundated.
      In Grand Forks, water damaged 11,000 homes and businesses. And on the
      afternoon of April 19, 1997, as the MERS team arrived, a fire broke out in
      the Security Building in downtown Grand Forks. By the next day, as a
      national TV audience watched, 11 buildings and three city blocks were wiped

      It was a scenario tailor-made for MERS, a combination of high-tech
      communications, power generators, heating and air conditioning units,
      portable offices, pharmacy, grocery store and toilet-paper dispensary
      housed in a convoy of large vehicles. A MERS unit is a self-reliant outfit
      of emergency-response specialists that can support dozens of people for
      several weeks.

      The sight of the formidable array of technology and supplies that the
      vehicles carry prompted an unlikely reaction from Capt. Ron McCarthy, a
      member of the Grand Forks police force. Instead of being awed by the "Red
      October" command truck sent by the Texas detachment, McCarthy exclaimed,
      "It has padded chairs!" McCarthy had spent the previous few days hunched on
      a folding card table chair after being flooded out of his headquarters
      office, and the MERS mobile command center promised some welcome relief.
      "In that situation," he said soberly, "you don't know what a big deal that
      can be."

      Up and Running in an Hour
      MERS was conceived in the mid-1980s. By then, it had become obvious to FEMA
      that immediate communications are vital to the success of any
      disaster-recovery program. Not knowing the true extent of a disaster as
      quickly as possible slows aid to victims, thereby compounding any problems
      produced by the disaster itself. MERS is intended as the first-strike team
      in situations where regular FEMA aid cannot be established quickly.

      "The sole intent is for MERS to set up a facility independent of the
      infrastructure within the disaster area," according to Clay Hollister,
      FEMA's director of information resources management. "The agency has its
      own 24-hour satellite service, provides its own PCs and so on. It has its
      own data network, and MERS is the mobile extension of that."

      The MERS vehicles were built by Harris Corp. under a contract awarded in
      the early 1980s. The first vehicles were shipped to Texas in 1985. MERS
      includes five detachments located in Maynard, Mass.; Thomasville, Ga.;
      Denton, Texas; Denver; and Bothell, Wash. These detachments support FEMA's
      10 operational regions.

      The detachments are identical in terms of the equipment they carry and the
      personnel who man them. They are meant to be completely self-sustaining for
      a number of weeks, and they arrive at a disaster site in a convoy of trucks
      that is either driven in or flown in on large transport aircraft.

      Each detachment maintains a fleet of about 70 vehicles that include
      communications trucks, power- and general-supply trucks, portable offices
      and water and diesel carriers. However, only a fraction of these vehicles
      are sent to any one disaster, being mixed and matched according to the
      nature and needs of the emergency. In this way, one MERS detachment can
      simultaneously support several emergencies.

      Every one of the 40-plus people in each detachment is required to have a
      commercial driver's license that enables them to drive any vehicle in the
      mix. More important than the driving credentials of the MERS staff is their
      technical expertise. Each is an expert in a particular information
      technology or engineering field, but the staff also is cross-trained in
      other disciplines so that each person can meet the various emergency needs
      as they arise. And given the conditions that the staff often has to
      overcome, it goes without saying that high morale is a large factor in any
      MERS unit.

      "I can honestly say that I have never worked with a more dedicated or
      motivated group of people," said John White, who heads the Bothell MERS
      detachment. Most of the people in the detachments are from the military and
      are used to working as a close-knit group under trying circumstances. When
      MERS was first formed, military people were the only ones available with
      experience in mobile communications, White explained.

      "I think MERS was, at that time, a four-letter word among some National
      Guard reserve units," White said. "We pretty much cleaned them out."

      Typically, a MERS team will go into a disaster area and be up and running
      in as little as an hour. The team then works with regular FEMA staff to set
      up a more permanent disaster field office. Once that is in place, the MERS
      team packs up and leaves, waiting for the next emergency.

      Hurricane Andrew Offers Test
      MERS was first used during Hurricane Hugo, which ravaged the East Coast in
      1989. But MERS' first big test came in August 1992, when Hurricane Andrew
      flattened a large area of southern Florida and was the most costly natural
      disaster ever to strike the United States. Hurricane Andrew wreaked $27
      billion in damages and resulted in 58 deaths. For Jim Loomis, the
      disaster-recovery administrator for the state of Florida, MERS made the
      difference between a bad situation and a truly horrendous one.

      "Andrew was a very large disaster that came along at a time when FEMA and
      the state were not prepared to handle it," Loomis said. "MERS was one of
      only a very few successful parts of that whole disaster."

      MERS' effectiveness was evident in places such as Florida City, Fla.,
      Loomis said, where communications had been completely wiped out. The state
      set up a base at the city hall using MERS, which was the only
      communications and power source there for several days.

      To Frank Koutnik, the director of Florida's Office of Policy and Planning,
      one of the biggest advantages to MERS was its ability to set up a large,
      PBX-type switchboard. Immediately after Hurricane Andrew, only cellular
      communications were available, at least in those places where the cell
      towers were still standing. Even so, the towers only had backup batteries
      for half a day. One by one they failed, and with them went the remaining

      MERS went to the devastated community of Homestead, Fla., to provide
      communications there as well. A microwave relay was set up and somehow --
      "I'm still not sure how," Koutnik said -- MERS managed to link up with the
      local Bell telephone company to provide communications to the community.
      MERS also provided satellite communications to the outside world --
      something that was vital for the disaster field office that the state set
      up to manage the emergency.

      "My gosh, without them we really would have been hurting," Koutnik said.
      "We had our own emergency communications vehicles, but against MERS it
      would be like comparing a Radio Shack walkie-talkie with a satellite

      Aiding Grand Forks Evacuees
      The situation in North Dakota was a little different. In Florida, many
      civilians were still left in the devastated areas once Hurricane Andrew had
      passed through, and the goal was to get communications up and running to
      organize aid. By the time MERS arrived in Grand Forks, a mandatory
      evacuation order had cleared the town of all its 50,000 citizens, spreading
      them across the United States and to three different countries in what was
      the biggest civilian evacuation since the Civil War. New Hampshire was the
      only state that did not host a Grand Forks resident.

      But that posed its own problem: How would Grand Forks officials let
      residents know how things were going in the town and when it would be safe
      for them to return?

      "For me, it was a tremendous learning experience," said Lt. Byron Sieber,
      the administrative resources manager with the Grand Forks Police Department
      and the primary public information officer during the disaster. "I'm used
      to dealing with the locals and situations such as homicides, but this was a
      global situation. We eventually had some 700 media people here, and we had
      to react live to requests from CNN, the "Today" show, etc. And then we had
      to get regular notices out on health, drinking water and so on."

      Sieber, along with other Grand Forks officials, tried to handle the
      situation from the regular emergency operations center in a cramped room in
      the basement of the police headquarters. That became impossible on the
      Friday when the Red River came over the dike. Sieber was one of the last
      people to leave the building. "We packed things in cars and drove away as
      the flood waters were lapping against the tires," he said.

      MERS Components

      Although equipment varies in the MERS detachments, most include the
      * A Multi-Radio Van containing KU-band satellite equipment that provides 48
      telephone lines and video feeds for two-way teleconferencing and full
      broadcast TV transmission. The MRV also provides long-distance,
      high-frequency radio; local- and intermediate-range UHF/VHF radio; and
      integrated radio and wire communication.

      * Line-of-sight radio, including transmitters and portable antennas, that
      allows 21 phone circuits for data, voice or fax. These radios also can
      provide for telephone service over a range of up to 56 miles.

      * Long-distance, high-frequency radios from RF Communications that provide
      four voice circuits and four data circuits.

      * International Mobile Satellite Organization communications that provide
      one phone circuit for worldwide voice, data and fax service.

      * Telephone switches, including an IDNX-90 integrated digital network
      exchange, Redcom phone switches that can provide 48 circuits, and expanded
      Merlin switches that provide 48 circuits over two T-1 lines.

      * Assorted standard computer and peripheral equipment, such as printers and

      * Standard off-the-shelf software.

      For the next three weeks, the 65-foot-long Red October truck (which is
      actually white -- the nickname comes from the Tom Clancy submarine novel)
      became the center of the emergency operations. It can be raised on
      hydraulic lifts and expanded to a width of 24 feet. It includes a large
      conference table and an assortment of phones, computers, TV screens and
      hookups to various satellite and radio communications. It worked alongside
      the regular MERS Multi-Radio Van to provide officials with a link to the
      outside world and to the various emergency agencies and National Guard
      units operating in the town.

      "Suddenly, we were in charge of this big media event," said Lt. Dennis
      Eggebraaten, who works in the investigations bureau in the Grand Forks
      Police Department and who, along with Sieber, acted as a public information
      officer during the flood. "We were just a couple of cops. I can't say
      enough about those [MERS officials]; they really saved our asses."

      For Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens, who coordinated the local response to the
      emergency and negotiated the political deals for relief with the governor's
      office and the state's congressional delegation, Red October was an island
      of calm amid all the outside chaos.

      "We couldn't have done the job we did without MERS," she said. "We had to
      move a complete group of local, state and federal agencies and give them a
      focus from which to do their work. What MERS did was to give us a place to
      share concerns without having the press there, and where we could open up.
      The setup provided us with a lot of technology we would otherwise not have
      had. Plus, we had all the people with all of the answers in one place."

      FEMA officials think the Grand Forks operation was an obvious success.
      Owens is now on a nine-member FEMA Visitors Board that meets several times
      a year to dispense advice and experience on how to deal with such major

      Bright Future for MERS
      MERS' reputation is strong enough that Congress appropriated $5 million for
      upgrades to the vehicles this year. Steven Levinsohn, the director of the
      Mobile Operations Division in FEMA's Response and Recovery Directorate,
      said he expects lawmakers to make a yearly appropriation for upgrades.

      "The commercial side of this [communications] business is moving even
      further ahead, so we need to be able to keep pace," he said. "I don't
      believe anyone can be truly state-of-the-art, but at the very least, we
      want to stay current on these things."

      The enhancements will allow MERS to accommodate narrowband transmission on
      land mobile radios and will improve MERS' support for line-of-sight and
      high-frequency radio. Support for wireless local-area networks and cellular
      systems also will be improved, Levinsohn said.

      "We will be looking to wireless systems to provide the quick support that's
      needed once we get into a disaster area," Levinsohn said. "Then we can take
      the time to think a little longer than we have been able to in the past
      about the longer-term solution to providing support."

      -- Robinson is a free-lance writer based in Portland, Ore.
    • Tim
      Message 2 of 2 , Jul 21 8:27 PM
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