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Senior Editor

Experts: Communications still a problem in disasters

Feb 27, 20065 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsNetwork Security

Six months after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, communications experts say they may be a bit better prepared for the next major disaster, but numerous obstacles remain.

The complexity of modern communications networks, both wired and wireless, makes responding to a modern-day disaster not only technically difficult, but politically and culturally troublesome as well, said Andrew Lippman, director of the MIT Media Lab.

Lippman was part of a roundtable discussion last week in Cambridge, Mass. that included communications experts from government and the private sector. He was joined by Tom Lesica, senior vice president of global technology and operations at Avaya, which was sponsored by Avaya.

Panelists acknowledged that enormous communications obstacles still exist, including the need for widespread adoption of interoperable radios for emergency first responders. That task alone could take years to complete.

Lippman said the emergency response to the infamous 1906 San Francisco earthquake and an explosion in Halifax Harbor in 1917 that killed 2,000 people were handled efficiently in comparison with what happened following Katrina in New Orleans. “One difference that is crucial is that in those days, communications didn’t exist, with no phones in homes or pockets. They didn’t have TV. And yet command and control worked,” Lippman said. After the San Francisco earthquake, the U.S. Army quickly took over.

“Today, what’s different, what’s exactly opposite, is that we may not have command and control but communications has become a social norm,” he said. “The people who aren’t injured in the initial disaster, when communications are disrupted, those people become part of the problem. So the smallest disaster affects those who assume communications are there.”

Following Katrina, a major issue was keeping networks accessible for families to find loved ones. But network capacity was limited for weeks. At the behest of the American Red Cross, Avaya and several other call center providers offered network capacity and personnel after Katrina, Lesica said.

With that in mind, Avaya may work with other IT vendors at a CIO Summit next month to devise a plan under which different vendors commit in advance to offer call center capacity when an emergency develops, Lesica said. The actual call center agents could be volunteers working from home who make a commitment to be available, he said.

Complicating modern-day responses to disasters is the sharing of networks by so many parties, with 85% of the nation’s critical infrastructure resting in the hands of the private sector, Lesica said. As a result, businesses need to develop the concept of a “trusted partner” when building communications that can survive or quickly recover from disasters.

“The issue of disaster recovery is seen as costly, and businesses don’t want to address it unless they have a disaster,” said Jim Flyzik, a consultant and chairman of the homeland security committee of the Information Technology Association of America. “If the business case can be made strongly [for disaster recovery], the governments and industries and companies are going to want to know they are working with trusted partners. You quickly realize you are relying on a whole lot of other entities for your business to survive.”

None of the members of the panel, including Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey (R-Mass.) said federal or state governments should certify trusted partners or legislate such cooperation. “I suspect companies want to do this on their own,” Healey said. “There has to be a degree of civic-mindedness. It’s not just the profitability factor. Their own families are involved.”

Kevin Prendergast, vice president of Northeast operations for American Medical Response (AMR), the nation’s largest ambulance provider, said several private ambulance companies in Massachusetts are already working to share resources effectively during future disasters. He said AMR sent 67 ambulances to New Orleans following Katrina only to find spotty cellular service and incompatibility between emergency mobile radios.

“It was a tremendous burden on command folks,” Prendergast said. “Command capability is impossible without communications capability. Communications is the core of what we need.”

Over the long term, Lippman said, disaster recovery efforts will need to rely more on network edge and mesh communications, something that could be helped by putting inexpensive laptops into every home – a goal that could be achieved perhaps in five years.

Healey urged governments and private businesses to be proactive, especially in planning for a possible flu pandemic. Schools and employers need to begin preparing for a flu that could force quarantines of workers and children in their homes, for two periods of as long as 10 weeks each with a short break in between. “That’s a long time at home,” she said, noting that the quarantines would be likely to pose problems for food suppliers, among others.

Ken McGee, a Gartner analyst and the moderator of the roundtable, questioned whether the communications infrastructure run by Verizon and others can support massive numbers of home-based workers for a sustained period. “We all need to ask service providers if the networks would work. And companies haven’t even decided which workers could stay home,” McGee said. “Many times, you can’t even put through a call in recent disasters.”