The veil was lifted from my eyes when Katrina hit. I realized that our wireless infrastructure, critical for relief efforts, was sorely lacking.
Unfortunately, disasters come in all shapes and sizes, and so must the ways in which telcos handle each event. They must be flexible enough to adapt to each unique situation.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the wireless carriers brought COWs (cells on wheels) and COLTs (cells on light trucks) into New York so that rescue teams could communicate. But the recent bombings in London presented a different challenge. Officials believe the terrorists may have coordinated over cell phones while inside London’s subway tunnels. Responding to that possibility, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is working with carriers and municipalities to design a process for cutting off cellular service to selected areas.
The disaster in the Gulf States presents yet another kind of scenario, and once again new strategies are required to save lives. I spoke with Neville Ray, senior vice president of engineering operations for T-Mobile, who gave me the inside scoop on what happened in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, and what needs to be done.
Although cell towers are built to withstand 200 mph hurricane-force winds, Ray said a helicopter ride over various sites revealed that some towers were gone. They had completely disappeared.
The locations of the wireless traffic switches presented another problem. According to Ray, most of T-Mobile’s competitors installed their switches on the ground floor, where they were vulnerable to flooding. T-Mobile, however, put its on the seventh floor. One brave T-Mobile network operations technician, Louis White, even volunteered to stay with the switch during the hurricane to protect it from water damage coming from the roof, making recovery that much quicker.
Why didn’t all the carriers put their switches on higher floors in New Orleans? Curiously, Sprint Nextel spokesperson Kristin Wallace said that switches must be on the ground floor because they’re too heavy to place anywhere else.
Rather than playing the blame game, however, there are lessons to be learned from this disaster. Perhaps local and state governments should not rely solely on private carriers to keep the lines of communications open. If cities run fire trucks and ambulances, why not have their own COWs and COLTs available for emergency service?
Ray tells me “significant technical knowledge” is required to bring one of these mobile cells into service. Well, maybe every city needs to put some of these men and women on their payroll. Most of the time they may be idle, but you still hire overnight building security, don’t you? You don’t complain about paying them when nothing happens.
Satellite phones are another solution that should be made available. They give carriers the luxury of using switches located safely away from the disaster area -- just about anywhere in the country, in fact. They are expensive, but maybe municipalities need to give every police precinct, hospital, and fire station at least one.
I live in San Francisco, which is No. 2 on the list of cities most endangered by natural or man-made disaster. I would rest easier knowing that the agencies and people entrusted with the well-being of my city’s residents have access to the latest technology for coordinating emergency services, and that they know how to use it.
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