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Readiness planning should also extend to remote sites. Reliable power and accessibility are among the many concerns. Since some may be in normally hard-to-reach locations, additional assistance may be needed to ensure access during disasters. The ability to monitor these sites also comes into play. One communications center had its transmitter stolen from a mountaintop enclosure. Since there was no intrusion detection, they learned of the theft only after units stopped acknowledging their transmissions. While some of the stories may seem fanciful, I assure you that they are all real and not so humorous to the people involved. Carrying fuel cans uphill during a blizzard to fill an auxiliary diesel tank is not much fun.
In the same light, those of us in public safety have real-world knowledge of Murphy’s Law. However, when it comes right down to it, Murphy was an optimist. Failure to anticipate – and address – multiple communications failures has been the undoing of many a plan. For example, there are a variety of outages that can impact our telephones. These range from the loss of one or more 911 trunks, neighborhood failures and end-office isolations wherein customers cannot dial out of a region, to the loss of the central office that supplies 911 service itself. While the latter is a low-probability/high-impact event, it still must be considered.
Some plans calls for the use of public works vehicles to drive through neighborhoods to serve as emergency contact points or the directing of the public to report to their closest fire station to sound the alarm. But during a disaster, will these vehicles be available? Will anyone be left at the station during a response? If not, what then?
Planning also needs to consider the impact of telephone failures on other aspects of communications. How many alarm circuits depend on the local telephone office? Nor are wireless or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technologies immune from impact. How many remote radio sites are controlled or monitored by means of dedicated circuits? How many applications such as Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) or Mobile Data Terminals (MTDs) rely on “air cards” and commercial cellular service to operate? What would happen if you lost any of these functions? Some of them? All of them? While carriers tend to be extremely reliable, there are some important facts to remember.
In the wake of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reported that 6,500 cell sites were down, including 44% of cell sites in Vermont. And despite the presence of significant infrastructure redundancy, telephone systems in parts of Louisiana were overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of Hurricane Katrina. So, plan for the worst and expect the worst. Part of this planning should include the registration of all of your critical telephone lines for priority restoration, and additionally registering those selected for priority service access through the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS) www.ncs.gov. Dialogs should be opened with your conventional, VoIP and wireless providers in order to better understand your local vulnerabilities and options. Access to units known as Cell On WheelS (COWS) can help to restore service, but it is important to understand their availability and limitations prior to an actual event.
Needless to say, if your infrastructure is failing because of weather conditions, your dispatch center may also be at risk. I have seen many facilities surrounded by sandbags year-round because of their close proximity to major rivers like the Mississippi. I have also seen others quickly inundated when a normally docile local creek overflowed its banks. A measurable number of 911 centers remain underground, making them extremely susceptible to flooding.
The decision of how, when and where to evacuate must be codified well in advance of the event in order to achieve continuity of operations. Moving just a block or two will probably not cut it, as conditions mandating the evacuation will likely affect a sizeable area. Appropriate attention is usually paid to the transfer of 911 calls, but this still doesn’t solve a bigger problem; how to get them dispatched. If your PSAP operations are relocated to an adjoining county or state, how will the appropriate emergency information be relayed back to first responders? Are regional radio networks, common frequencies, data nets, or mutual aid channels in place? If not, what’s your plan?