Urgent Communications, Public safety’s lessons from Superstorm Sandy

November 5, 2012

by Donny Jackson, Glenn Bischoff

(Ed.: This article originally appeared in print as “From crisis comes clarity.”)

 

Public-safety advocates are adamant that the commercial communications outages caused by Superstorm Sandy and subsequent flooding cannot be repeated on the proposed nationwide LTE network for first responders that will be built under the supervision of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet).

 

The FCC reported that about 25% of commercial cell sites in the affected area were not operational in the immediate aftermath of the storm, according to a statement from David Turetsky, chief of the agency’s public-safety and homeland-security bureau. Meanwhile, early indications from state departments of transportation indicated that public-safety agencies in the affected area were able to maintain communications in the aftermath of Sandy, according to William Brownlow, telecommunications manager for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

 

For the most part, public-safety LMR systems remained operational, according to input Brownlow received from the states of New York and New Hampshire, primarily because LMR towers have been hardened to withstand such conditions, with generators providing backup power when the commercial electric grid is down.

 

“The general takeaway from this is that public safety’s requirements are not the same as commercial providers — the need for backup generators is absolutely crucial,” Brownlow said. “I think that’s the message that needs to be made clear to FirstNet.”

 

Commercial wireless carriers do provide backup power to many key sites in their networks, but providing backup power to all sites is not an option for fiscal and logistical reasons — backup power can be expensive to maintain, and diesel generators are not allowed on most rooftops, which is where many cell sites are located.

 

“The sites built on buildings are the most vulnerable, as opposed to the ones built on towers, for two reasons,” mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold said. “Number one, buildings don’t withstand 100-mph winds the way towers do. Number two, you can’t put a generator on the roof, so you put a generator on the ground or in the basement, and it floods.”

 

There has been discussion about increasing reliability for first responders by allowing them to also access multiple commercial carrier networks, in the hope that at least one of them would have an operational system during a crisis.

 

“Most of the towers that failed had two or three [commercial] operators on them,” Seybold said. “So, even FirstNet’s plan of multiple network operators in a given phone would not have helped the situation.”

 

Like a tsunami

 

In New York City — hit particularly hard by the storm — public-safety communications remained operable the entire time, according to Charles Dowd, a deputy chief for the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and a member of the FirstNet board.

 

“Both the police and fire systems stayed up 100% of the time,” Dowd said. “We lost a couple of receiver sites temporarily, but those were receiver sites mixed with another receiver site, so there was no de-gradation in the system. We did not lose a single frequency on the police or fire side the entire time.

 

“That’s a real testament to the efforts of our guys in our radio shop. They did a tremendous job.”

 

Another factor was that the public-safety communications system benefited from backup power provided by batteries and generators in areas where the commercial power grid went down, Dowd said. Although getting fuel was a well-chronicled issue for consumers, public safety was able to secure the fuel it needed to keep backup generators running, he said.

 

“Most of our stuff is above grade,” Dowd said. “Most of our stuff resides in buildings, and we tend to do the installs. Obviously, the antennas are high up, but also most of the other equipment was high up. [The few] sites that went down didn’t go down because of power, because they had sufficient battery backup that we could replenish. The only issue was backhaul connectivity.

 

“Our radio system worked great. Obviously, the commercial networks didn’t fare quite as well.”

 

Although there was plenty of warning that Sandy would hit the East Coast, the impact of the storm was still startling, Dowd said.

 

“This thing came in almost exactly like a tsunami,” he said.

 

Indeed, on the day that Sandy hit, there were more than 100,000 calls to the 911 switch, compared with the 28,000-30,000 emergency calls that the system normally receives on a daily basis, Dowd said. The calls were answered by an extremely dedicated staff, many of whom reported to work despite significant family and transportation issues, he said.

“Some of them had to walk to local precincts and be driven in, because the transportation system stopped running at a certain point. But these folks came in,” Dowd said. “Many of them stayed over 24 hours, and some of them worked 16-hour tours. They were sitting over there in the 911 center, eating military MREs — ready-to-serve meals. It was quite an effort on their part to get the job done.”

 

Awareness, alerting apps pay dividends

 

In Pennsylvania, a quickly deployable situational-awareness solution from White Canvas Group helped bolster the efficiency and effectiveness of Huntingdon County’s response to Superstorm Sandy, according to an emergency-management official.

 

Called GridMeNow, the smartphone-based solution lets users share reports and images — automatically stamped with the time and location — that provide enhanced awareness of a given situation, which can be used to improve damage-assessment and recovery efforts, said Adam Miller, director of the county’s Emergency Management Agency.

 

“We’re not as technologically resourced as metropolitan areas, so to gain situational awareness here sometimes is a big challenge,” Miller said. “Allowing folks to be able to snap a picture and send that to us — giving us information that is geo-coded — is just terribly useful.”

 

Miller said that he first learned of GridMeNow about a year ago and had planned to deploy the solution in Huntingdon County this fall. However, he decided the county should use the solution on the eve of Superstorm Sandy’s landfall.

 

“Basically, the day before the event came … I said, ‘I believe we can use this and implement this right now,’” Miller said. “So, we pulled the trigger on it at the last minute, and I was shocked how simple it was for me to basically spin up users on it and start making reports from the field to us, to start to develop a new level of situational awareness — and, boy, was it a treat.”

 

Huntingdon County was not damaged by the storm as much as other parts of the northeast, but GridMeNow let emergency officials assess problems quickly and is ideal for creating damage-assessment reports needed for federal aid, Miller said.

 

“When I want to paint a picture of the type of damage that my community has in developing a statement of impact for the federal government … there is no better way to paint a picture than to have actual imagery,” he said. Normally, it takes a long time to acquire such data, but the data acquisition occurs in real time with the GridMeNow system, according to Miller.

 

When the state of Massachusetts implemented in October an emergency alert system developed by Ping4Alerts, little did officials know that they would be facing one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history just a few weeks later. But even though the system — designed to push public-safety and health alerts to the public via a smartphone application — was used minimally during the crisis, it was comforting to know that it was there, said Peter Judge, the public information officer for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

 

“Unlike the stuff that you saw happening in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, we really didn’t have that level of trouble,” Judge said. “Statewide, we only ended up with 165 people in shelters. You wouldn’t have believed how we missed this bullet — [the storm] surrounded us. Fortunately, we didn’t get whacked like our sister states did.”

 

The system was used to push out weather alerts and an Amber Alert as the storm approached the commonwealth, but it really is intended to be used only in life-threatening circumstances, according to Judge. The theory is that using the system often and for more mundane purposes eventually will result in a “boy who cried wolf” scenario.

 

“When this thing goes off, we want them to know that there’s something incredibly serious [happening],” Judge said.

 

Of course, the solution only will be effective if people download the application. About 10,000 people did so within the first 24 hours after MEMA’s press conference to announce the initiative, which was carried by the four major TV networks in the region, as well as a cable news network and a Spanish-language station, in addition to print media. But, with more than 6 million people in the commonwealth, there still is a lot of outreach work to do.

 

“We’re using a grassroots approach on this,” Judge said. “There are 351 communities in the commonwealth, and they each have their own emergency management director, who we interact with on a daily basis. We’re working with them to promote it within their communities. … There’s a lot of enthusiasm, so we expect that these numbers will continue to grow by leaps and bounds.”