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Trying to learn from disasters

Mar 06, 20063 mins
Network Security

Avaya recently sponsored a roundtable discussion in Boston about improving communications during disasters, a conversation that took into account everything from private/public sector collaboration to the ROI of disaster preparedness.

The event was hosted by Ken McGee, a group VP at Gartner, and featured Tom Lesica, Avaya senior VP of Global Technology and Operations; Jim Flyzik, chairman of the Information Technology Association of America Committee on Homeland Security; Kevin Pendergast, VP of American Medical Response’s (AMR) Northeast Operations; Andrew Lippman, director of MIT’s Media Lab; and Kerry Healey, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts.

All were in agreement that Hurricane Katrina showed there is much work to do. Communications problems were, of course, widespread. “If you can’t communicate properly,” McGee said, “you can’t coordinate and respond properly.”

One microcosm: Pendergast said AMR dispatched ambulances and crews from its operations across the country, and even though the company has standardized on many pieces of gear, radio interoperability problems hindered command-to-unit and unit-to-unit communications. “Nextel direct connect was virtually the only connection we had for the first 48 hours,” he said.

Flyzik said 85% of critical infrastructure is in the hands of the private sector, such as AMR’s ambulances, but assembling the resources is challenging. “We need to be able to quickly find what’s available and marshal the resources,” he said.

The collaborative work Avaya, Cisco and others did proves what is possible, Lesica said, but “it took seven to eight days before we had infrastructure in place, while the first three to four days are the most critical.” He’s in favor of forming a high-tech national guard to play a role in recovery operations.

MIT’s Lippman said, “Communications today is the social norm, and when it collapses people become part of the problem instead of part of the solution.” We need networks with intelligence at the edge that stay up when the towers come down, he said, but ultimately the social issue – teaching preparedness – is as important as policy and technology.

But why does every disaster seem to catch us off guard? There are no financial incentives to be on constant alert. Flyzik said we have to turn preparedness into something companies want: Should we establish “trusted enterprises” that are prepared for disasters and ready to contribute to recovery efforts? The incentive might be tax breaks, but ultimately such a badge might become a trade advantage.

The real trick, McGee said, is finding an approach like this that keeps the flame alive until the next disaster strikes.