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U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program

Katrina Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)

Hurricane Katrina, 2005

Interviewee: CAPT Robert Nutting, USCG

Division Chief, Command, Control & Communications Division

Interviewer: PACS Peter J. Capelotti, USCGR
Date of Interview:  28 September 2005
Place: Atlantic Area Command Center, Portsmouth, Virginia 


Discussion of connectivity issues and the multiple communication challenges the Coast Guard faced during Hurricane Katrina. Captain Nutting discussed the unique situation in which the Coast Guard’s three communication suite vans – two located in LANTAREA and one located in PACAREA – were deployed for the same incident. The capabilities of these communication vans included VHF/UHF communications, military satellite communications, and handheld radios for the on-scene personnel. CAPT Nutting was looking forward to reviewing the telecommunications’ lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, particularly communication gaps as a result of so many Coast Guard resources in one location and among the many agencies. In addition, he wanted to determine if Coast Guard members were aware of certain capabilities that were not utilized during this incident and were they properly trained with these capabilities. 

Q: Captain Sir, if you could give me your rank and your name and spell your last name please.

CAPT Nutting: Captain Bob Nutting, that’s N-U-T-T-I-N-G.

Q: And what’s your position here at LANTAREA Sir?

CAPT Nutting: The Division Chief of the Command, Control, and Communications Division.

Q: Can you give me a paragraph on how you got to this position, what’s your career path been like; are you Academy, OCS, how did you get into this chair?

CAPT Nutting: I went to the Academy a long time ago but that doesn’t really have any specific bearing on getting into this particular job. I’ve been mostly involved with communications and have a lot of Command and Control experience; electronics background.

Q: I know that from the interviews we did after 9/11 it seemed like communications were, at least from the Coast Guard’s point of view, were huge; what worked, mostly what didn’t work in New York that day and there was at least the beginnings of a sense that a lot of those kind of connectivity issues were being addressed, and when this happened can you give me a sense of how this challenged the communications network of the Coast Guard and how it responded?

CAPT Nutting: I think we had multiple challenges here because this actually impacted our data lines, our whole data connectivity, as well as your voice … standard phone and then you get into the communications aspect, whether it’s VHF high-sites going down . . . so you really had a challenge where you basically, you know you took out a District … so all your capabilities that a District would have . . . you took out a sector, which they had a capability of theirs, so we had to significantly rebuild all of that aspect of it.

Q: How much of that . . . well let me ask, where were you when this started to spin up and what were you working on and how did you get redirected and how did you redirect your staff to deal with this?

CAPT Nutting: Well I mean I think the typical Coast Guard fashion is when something like this spins up you’re starting to prepare for it and get things in place and get people ready to respond, and to be honest I can’t even remember what this displaced because we pretty much are going to focus on whatever is the hottest issue at the time. And so with the magnitude of this issue the staff clearly rearms itself to doing what is needed to solve the problems and help out the District.

Q: Yes, and that was your focus; figuring out what the problems were there and provide for them.

CAPT Nutting: Provide several things. I mean initially trying to make sure that a little bit of oversight in the sense of we have capabilities that can be pre-deployed. In some cases there were like . . . we have communication vans.

Q: Are there any communications assets that are under the control of the Area or are those all . . . ?

CAPT Nutting: Yes.

Q: What would those be?

CAPT Nutting: We have contingency communications.

Q: I mean rather than cutters of course.

CAPT Nutting: No, we have contingency communication equipment. Probably the two biggest issues are our communications vans that we have. We have two of them at CAMSLANT; that’s where they stay, and they’re ready to be deployed with any type of issue where you need communications to plug some holes. One of those was pre-deployed prior to that.

Q: It was, and where would that have been pre-deployed to?

CAPT Nutting: It was pre-deployed to Mobile.

Q: Okay.

CAPT Nutting: It was, again, D-8 requested it and it was pre-deployed to Mobile and then pretty much after the hurricane; basically that Monday, the second one was flown to Alexandria, Louisiana.

Q: What do those allow you to do? Everything’s down everywhere else, what do those two communication suites give to the Coast Guard like when everything’s been destroyed pretty much everywhere else?

CAPT Nutting: You have the capability of pretty much, you know, VHF communications, UHF communications. If you need it you have military satellite voice communications.

Q: How do they get that out to the field, you know how do they connect with say helos or cutters? Can they connect to provide visibility for the organization, down to what level; can they talk to PSUs, MSSTs?

CAPT Nutting: Well it’s really . . . on the VHF it’s anybody. It basically can replace a high-site for a VHF. I mean obviously the range is not going to be as extensive but it comes in and provides a self-contained system to be able to do that monitoring for that local site. So it may come in and, for example, you know a station went down or a high-site got wiped out, it can come in and monitor that and in addition to that it really is flexible to whatever the on-scene person needs and so it’s deployed based on their requirements.

Q: And their requirements in this case I would guess would refer to just about everything.

CAPT Nutting: Yes. I mean in addition to these vans we also have in our contingency Comms equipment, I mean we have additional handheld radios that are, you know again, we store them just for this type of thing. There are base stations; VHF base stations and HF base stations that can be deployed. There are Iridium phones that we reshuffled around and deployed down there. Again, so all of these things are ready to go and we sent a lot of that stuff down there.

Q: So in terms of LANTAREA did we have anything in reserve at that point or was all of the reserve communication that we had, was that thrown at this situation?

CAPT Nutting: As far as the transportable communications vans, actually all three in the Coast Guard, the PACAREA van also came over to support.

Q: So there are two in LANT and one in PAC and they were all in . . .

CAPT Nutting: So all three are down in theater supporting the operation.

Q: And they’re still down there.

CAPT Nutting: They are still down there.  As far as our communications equipment I think we have multiple different types of handhelds and for the most part we’ve extended all of the ones that we had but there are others that we can get our hands on if we needed them. So I mean not everything has been sent down there.

Q: Is that a unique situation to have all three of these resources deployed to one place at one time?

CAPT Nutting: Yes.

Q: Can you recall any other situations?

CAPT Nutting: I can’t recall another one.

Q: So if there’s another situation somewhere else that requires kind of a big communication suite how would we flow resources to that area?

CAPT Nutting: You prioritize and flow it.

Q: Did this present - I mean obviously the whole communications net or most of it being down - did it present unusual aspects from your point of view for the Coast Guard communications?

CAPT Nutting: Did it present unusual? . . . Yes, I mean there was a significant issue here because, again, you did loose . . . I mean it wasn’t even when you have to respond to communications. It wasn’t just for one area. It wasn’t a high-site or two high-sites, it was multiple high-sites. And then there were obviously issues where you have communications to those high-sites. You had issues where there was, you know the telephone lines weren’t working. You have power issues, flooding, a couple high-sites were destroyed, and so you had to recover from all that. At the same time you have to recover from issues such as our whole communications station down in New Orleans, which provides a lot of services to the mariner … it had damage and was offline. In addition to that you had just your normal Coast Guard data circuits and phone lines that were down.

Q: So when you go to fix something like this how do you start?

CAPT Nutting: Typically this is where, in most cases there are kind of two components. If it’s out of our contingency Comms we’re working through the District to provide whatever resources they think they need; equipment, whether it’s, as I say, whether it’s these communications vans, whether it’s the handheld radios that are typically used. Additionally a major piece that we sent down there were satellite phones and then they figure out where the priority is. But a real key to all of this is working with the MLCs and ESUs since they’re the ones that actually go and do the assessments and repair these sites and put in the capability back into access the Coast Guard data network and voice communications.

Q: So it would be the MLCs or the ESUs that actually give you the information of what’s up, what’s down and then . . . ?

CAPT Nutting: Yes. I mean it’s a combination. The ESU is working side by side with the Sector.

Q: Right, and in this case the sector was gone or down for a while and something else had to be brought in.

What is the communications . . . it seems that there’s a disconnect in communications between say Area type assets; cutters, aircraft and so forth and what used to be say Group MSO assets. After 9/11 have those communication things, how are they being addressed and was the work that’s been done on those since 9/11, has that made a difference in a situation like this allowing say small boats to talk with helos and so forth?

CAPT Nutting: You know to be honest that’s the area that I’m trying to find out in the lessons learned. We’re starting to ask those questions right now as to make sure to get a better handle on them. I have a perception but we’re asking those questions right now.

Q: What are some of the other kind of questions that you’re curious as to what happened in this situation?

CAPT Nutting: Well obviously I’m very interested to know what the communication gaps were. I think there are some things that worked extremely well to get back communications in general pretty quickly but there are some gaps out there that I suspect were out there that we’re trying to make sure we understand occurred, whether its communication with small boats, whether its . . . you know when you have that many Coast Guard resources in a particular area, what happened with communications from that perspective. Was it that you could have . . . on the one hand you could have . . . with that many resources could you have a problem with the frequencies that you were using. I mean everybody could talk to each other but there was just so much communication that you had problems. 

Q: Is there a sense that at some point you’re going to go to a different communications lay down, whether it’s chat rooms or however you’re going to communicate so that there’s not all of these frequency overlays or the communications suite that you have just being overloaded in a situation like this?

CAPT Nutting: I think you have that . . . that migration is already happening. I mean it already goes that way but you don’t have that capability when you’re talking about small boats and aircraft.

Q: Right.

CAPT Nutting: So you’re still going to have to . . .

Q: Find a way to talk to those folks.

CAPT Nutting: Right.  And I’ll be very interested to know – I haven’t heard yet – one of the other aspects is, “What about interagency communications?”

Q: We haven’t been tasked with that yet Sir [chuckle]. That’s bad enough. Yes, we’re just trying to figure out what goes on within the Service. Yesterday, for example, I heard from one of the interviewees that there was no communication services; no capability of talking to one of the boats resetting ATONs for example. They’re 50-year old western river buoy centers and so forth and in a situation like this where you’ve got nobody can come up river or go down river until the channels are all checked and so forth.

CAPT Nutting: Yes, one of the major problems when you wipe out our whole national distress system or a large chunk of it and you no longer have that standard VHF. That standard VHF coverage is how you would be getting that information. With that down, that is a significant issue.

Q: Is there or should there be a whole separate independent service of communications?

CAPT Nutting: I mean there is a project in the works now.

Q: There is, okay.

CAPT Nutting: This brings up another reason for why it would be extremely beneficial but there is a project in the works to take a look at conductivity; communications conductivity, to our smaller boats, pretty much data conductivity that allows you to . . .

Q: Would this be something that say Deep Water would address or is this separate from that?

CAPT Nutting: No, this is separate from that because Deep Water cutters are already getting that capability.

Q: Down to this, let’s say a 110 or whatever it is.

CAPT Nutting: Yes, this is down to 87s. It’s the buoy tenders you’re talking about, some of the older smaller buoy tenders.

Q: Okay, to give the, say LANTAREA or District a chance to . . .

CAPT Nutting: Well it will allow them to eventually go back and use the Coast Guard data network to be able to do their administrative work and show that . . .

Q: And from your awareness of this, this is taking that suite down to the 87s? Is there any thought to taking it down to small boats; PSU-type boats?

CAPT Nutting: No, not at this point. There’s limited real estate and other issues that you have.

Q: Yes. Does the Coast Guard separate out or is there a, let’s say tactical/local communications from these data issues, or is this integrated; these communications . . . when you set out to replace a destroyed communications network do you have separate people standing up the voice, separate people standing up the data, or is it pretty much trying to do both at the same time?

CAPT Nutting: Pretty much its the ESU that has responsibilities for both those aspects. I mean obviously a lot of the landline . . . you know, let’s talk about some data issues. Landline has been destroyed and so your typical phone company connections weren’t there and so we had to use satellite-based communications; messages that came back that had data Comms or they were voice Comms in many cases, and you know the ESU is the one that’s providing that information technology support in that arena. At the same time they support the National Distress System that we have out there and all the VHF high-sites and so therefore they’re also working those issues to get those repaired.

Is there a reason why that’s not used all the time, say satellite communication as opposed to VHF, or is it the cost?

CAPT Nutting: It’s the cost, yes.

Q: But if cost wasn’t an issue would satellite communication be used all the time or is it irrelevant in terms of how data gets transmitted?

CAPT Nutting: There are some problems with satellite communications. There are delays with it but I’m not sure what the . . . I don’t have all the info.

Q: What other aspects of this from a telecommunications standpoint . . . feel free to address anything that you’ve noticed out of this incident or are noticing; issues that you’d like to see addressed or are curious about?

CAPT Nutting: From a telecommunications perspective one of the things that I definitely would like to do is - and again we’re still tracking it down and until the lessons learned you don’t know whether it’s a perception or not – but there were capabilities that we still had that weren’t used and my question is whether during this timeframe that the people that are actually down in the first line of defense know that the capability exists.

Q: Yes, and that they can call on it if they need it.

CAPT Nutting: And that they can call on it if they need it. And so my question has been – and that’s been part of the role during this thing as we work through this issue is - is trying to make sure people know about it. But I think one of my goals will be to work with the IMAT teams because there’s a Comms leader on the IMAT teams and I think there needs to be some more education on what is out there that we can call upon.

Q: It’s a question . . . I had a meeting with the Chief Knowledge Officer for the whole Service last week and those were almost his exact words. They’re considering standing up this whole structure that would do exactly that; go to each unit, “What do you know”, and, “Have you been trained up to know this and if not why”, and you get everybody checked off for this very issue. You know, “If you’re in a situation like this do you know that we have “X”, “Y”, “Z”, and they can be here and . . .

CAPT Nutting: And more importantly it’s not only, “Do you know that you have it”, but it’s, “Do you know how to use it and how can it be applied?” 

Q: And, “Have you been trained up and is everybody onboard with it”, and all of that.

CAPT Nutting: Yes.

Q: Well Sir, this has been very enlightening. I’d like to be able to call on you if I could if these things come up as we travel around the rest of this response and get some feedback from you.

CAPT Nutting: No problem.

Was there anything else that you wanted to add?

CAPT Nutting: That pretty much covers it in the Comms area.

Q: Terrific. Thank you Sir.


Last Modified 1/12/2016