Alternative Communication Skills During Disaster

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Alternate communications during times of disaster

By Dr. Jim Kennedy, NCE, MRP, MBCI, CBRM

We have witnessed over the last three to five years many disasters both in the United States and abroad. Based on what we are hearing from NOAA and the National Weather Service the US is likely to see the same number, if not more, tropical storms this year. Storms like those of the size and ferocity of the type that were so devastating to the southern portion of the US in 2005. So, tropical storms in the US , earthquakes in South America and Asia or volcanoes anywhere else on the globe, we, humanity, face another year of potential emergencies that will need to be responded to.

One thing that all of these natural disasters have in common, besides the tremendous loss of life and disruption to everyday lives of the populous, is that they are immediately followed by an almost total loss of the ability to communicate with the outside world. Power is lost, telephone services are discontinued, and cell phone service is either non-existent or is so congested that it takes hours to get a call through.

So, every year, companies and emergency planners face the problem of providing continued communication before, during, and after a disaster strikes their areas. This year, more than any other time, in the southern part of America small, medium and large company business continuity planners are looking for alternatives to standard communications so that they can keep their business and critical operations running in the aftermath of a devastating event.

I thought that I would present some alternatives for the spectrum of business types so that those business continuity planners would have choices to make informed decisions about backup communications from.

Before we discuss back-up communications solutions let’s first discuss the failure mechanisms for the communications used during normal times.

Failure modes
Most companies continue to rely upon the standard telephone system for their communications needs. In order to provide this service the telecommunications carrier, regardless of where you are located in the world, relies upon either copper wire or fiber optic cables from its central offices to its customers' premises. This ‘last mile’ can either be above ground, which is in the majority of cases, or underground. We have all seen those graphic pictures of poles and trees uprooted and thrown to the ground after a hurricane or tornado have devastated an area. When this happens that last mile of connectivity between the business and its telephone provider, Internet provider, or application service provider are abruptly disconnected and utility power is lost. Underground cables are not entirely safe from disruption of service either. Many times due to flooding and/or power loss these underground services are disrupted as well. In the case of cell phone providers the cell towers receive your cell phone’s call they then route it to a local central office. These towers or the equipment inside of them can also be damaged or destroyed as well as the last mile circuits which connect those cell towers to the local telephone network. So cell phone service is as tenuous as the regular telephone service when a disaster strikes. I should also mention that the southeast US is not the only area where loss of communications services takes place and hurricanes and tornadoes are not the only natural disasters that disrupt communications and power. In the northeast US over the last several years ice storms and blizzards have also taken their toll on communications and power utilities, for example.

Usually following an event like a tornado, hurricane, blizzard or the like, the communications and power service providers work very hard to restore service, however, in most cases we are talking several days if not a week for the restoration of power and phone service. This restoration time varies depending on the size and intensity of the...
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