When Walt Burns arrived in the Gulf of Mexico as part of the oil spill
response in May, he was tasked with establishing security and
communication for several thousand people coming in and out of St.
Bernard Parish’s command base in the middle of the Mississippi River
bayou — a base with no Internet access, cell phone service or buildings.
his tent that quickly rose to 100-degree temperatures, he used portable
satellite dishes and microwave systems to provide connectivity while
dodging daily rainstorms and lightning shutdowns.
It was a
fitting challenge for the University of Denver adjunct faculty
instructor who teaches courses in broadband and wireless networks at
"I think I get a little bit of real-world experience to bring back this way,” he says.
though BP recently capped the leaking well, Burns is still in the Gulf,
responding to the spill 15 hours a day, seven days a week. When he gets
five or 10 minutes to spare, he’s interacting with the students he’s
currently teaching in an online, introductory telecommunications course.
not about me,” he says of the class. "But every now and then I throw
something in the discussion groups that provides a little extra insight
or perspective on the difference between standard telecommunication and
things you have to do in an emergency.”
Burns had his first
experience in emergency technical response after Hurricane Katrina. He
worked for a year and a half helping New Orleans build its information
technology and communications infrastructure.
"A group of us
formed a company called Response Force 1,” he says. "When this situation
occurred, we just sort of got the band back together, so to speak.”
Their team consists of about 55 people, 45 of whom are local hires.
a portable office environment with PCs and printers and being able to
take photos for badges, creating a credentialing database to keep track
of various personnel and command staff down to the folks that provide us
food, sanitation, and the fisherman and various people going out on
boats every day.”
One project he’s working on now is installing GPS transponders to track major vessels.
are hundreds of vessels out there that are either doing actual cleanup
work or they are deploying oil boom,” Burns says. "Local fishermen go
out in the smaller boats and either deliver supplies or they go out with
these specially equipped cell phones to do surveillance and take photos
and track locations, where the oil is and the environmental impact. All
that information is collected and brought back and analyzed. So a lot
of fairly new cutting edge technology is being used to fight this
His team also is providing satellite communications to
several residential barges he calls "flotels” that will house up to 270
workers near barrier islands that have become contaminated. The boat
trip to these areas can take two to three hours, so the barges will
allow workers to remain on scene for a 14-day rotation.
the tents they’ve been working from are now equipped with DSL broadband
and Wi-Fi and are being joined by new structures, including a
helicopter pad and firehouse. Roads and bridges are being improved to
handle the traffic of workers coming and going each day. Their base camp
has become a small city where tens of thousands of feet of oil boom,
absorbent material and skimmers are maintained, staged and deployed.
in all, my work here is exciting, unique, motivating and exhausting,”
Burns says. "There is a strong sense of urgency and commitment by the
local workers as well as everyone in camp to saving the threatened
wetlands and way of life here … I’d like to be able to get back to
teaching classes by fall, but there’s so much oil in the Gulf that it
may take months or even years to complete the clean-up.”
Tierney, academic director for University College’s Information and
Communications Technology program, looks forward to having Burns back at
University College and understands the work he’s doing will inform his
teaching. Burns is a master teacher who has been teaching in the
telecommunications program at University College since 1991. When the
new Information and Communications Technology program was developed,
Tierney looked to Walt to design and shape the program.
the reasons Walt is held in such high regard by our students is that he
brings challenging technical content to life by relating the principles
to practical application,” Tierney says. "Knowing Walt, I am certain
that his students during the coming year will directly learn from the
unique technical challenges that he has encountered during his work in
Thanks for contributing a fascinating look into DU's prowess and the imagination and intelligence of one of your professors. Colorado professors like Walt Burns make our state proud, so thanks for letting us all know.