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How Cisco brings communications to disaster relief efforts

A look at the high-tech tools Cisco employs to establish communications in areas that have recently suffered a disaster.

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Credit: REUTERS/Albert Gea

Although Cisco Live 2015 is in the books now, the memories of it certainly lives on. Each event I attend is different and gives me a better understanding of how Cisco operates as a company. I've written many posts over the years on Cisco's ability to be innovative to capture market transitions and drive the company's growth. One of the things I've liked about Cisco over the years is the philanthropic side to the company that resonates from CEO John Chambers down to all of the employees. I've heard Mr. Chambers talk on more than one occasion about corporate social responsibility and how important that is to the Cisco culture.

One of the more interesting discussions I had around this topic at Cisco Live was with Sue-Lynn Hinson, who manages what Cisco calls the Tactical Operations (TacOps) team. The goal of this group isn't to drive sales or to market the latest and greatest product. Sue-Lynn never goes on sales calls and she and her team have no quota to fill. Instead, the TacOps team spends its time travelling the globe to establish emergency IP-based communications to first responders, government agencies, relief organizations, and others in times of emergency caused by disasters or other incidents. 

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The TacOps team has at their disposal a number of custom-built emergency response solutions to establish communications in disaster areas. For example, the Cisco Network Emergency Response Vehicle (NERV) is a mobile communication center that is designed to establish communications in emergency situations.

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The NERV can be up and going in 15 minutes and can run for up to four days without requiring any resources, which is essential in situations that are already likely to be resource-constrained. The NERV provides a number of services to disaster workers such as:

  • Redundant Internet Uplinks with up to 5 Mbps of bandwidth
  • Wired and wireless network infrastructure
  • Radio and voice interoperability
  • Voice over IP
  • Network-based video surveillance
  • High-definition video conferencing

In addition to the NERV, Cisco has other mobile response units built in vehicles of different sizes that have similar functionality that operate for shorter periods of time or for more specific purposes. The NERV is a large truck that can operate for an extended period. Other vehicles include the Cisco Emergency Communications Unit (ECU) and ECU 2, which are trailers, and mobile command vehicles that are built into vans.

One of the solutions that I think is really cool is the emergency communications kit (ECK), a handheld, integrated, ruggedized kit that offers VoIP, data services, wireless bridging, Power over Ethernet, local paging and security that can be fully operational in under five minutes.

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The TacOps team has been deployed to more than 20 disasters since 2011, including some high-profile incidents such as the earthquake in Nepal (2015), Ebola crisis in West Africa (2014), Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines (2013), the Boston Marathon bombings (2013), Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey (2012), and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan (2011).

Cisco's ability to innovate and capture market share has been well-documented and is the primary reason the company is so profitable. In this era of business competitiveness with such a strong focus on stock performance, it's great to see a company like Cisco divert so many resources to connecting the unconnected in the time of a disaster. Cisco innovation here has a huge impact on the ability of disaster workers to do their job effectively, which leads to more lives being saved. You can learn more about Sue-Lynn and the TacOps team here.

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