- Following is an article from Federal Computer Week
(source URL - http://22.214.171.124/pubs/fcw/1998/anniversary/fema.htm).
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
BY BRIAN ROBINSON
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
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
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
"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.
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.