Communications: The “Avalanche Effect”

March 1, 2004
av·a·lanche – 1. A fall or slide of a large mass, as of snow or rock,
down a mountainside. 2. A massive or overwhelming amount;
a flood: “I received an avalanche of mail.”

Over the past year, there have been disasters all around the world: the Iranian earthquake near Bam, killed over 20,000 and injured more than 50,000; China gas well disaster killed 191; landslides in the Philippines resulted from the heaviest rainfall in the past 25 years; heavy rains in France forced the evacuation of 15,000 and left 250,000 without drinking water; the European heat wave killed thousands.

Closer to home in the United States, the wildfires of Southern California ravaged 800,000 acres and displaced more than 100,000 people, with damage estimates that exceeded $12 billion; Hurricane Isabel struck the East Coast, killing at least 40 people in seven states and leaving 4.5 million people without electricity and damage estimated at over $1 billion; seven days of ravaging storms struck from Kansas to Tennessee, killing more than 40 people and obliterating entire neighborhoods; a Rhode Island night club fire killed 100 people and injured more than 180; the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up over several states, resulting in the loss of its seven astronauts; 100-year floods occurred more frequently.

On 9/11, the U.S. experienced the worst terrorism in history with attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and a foiled attempt on the U.S. Capitol that resulted in a plane crash in Pennsylvania. In 2002, sniper attacks involved three states and closed down numerous roads.

What did all of these events have in common? They were catastrophic or extraordinary events that produced a wave of cascading communications. As experienced many times, one of the first systems to become overwhelmed is the public telephone system. With that in mind, imagine the reliability and enormity of our national telephone network; it is mind-boggling that such a reliable system can be overloaded during catastrophic events, severe weather or other significant event nonetheless.

These cascading waves of communication begin by the initial call to 911 centers. Today, with all of the wireless and landline telephony, 911 centers are bombarded – and sometimes overwhelmed – with repetitive reports of incidents, especially those that are significant, highly visible and in large population centers.

Next comes the simultaneous dispatch of public safety first responders (fire, EMS and police). Within each of these disciplines there will be multiple-unit responses. In severe cases, there will be requests for mutual aid units and more dispatches will occur. Each mutual aid responder will also be seeking to communicate with the incident commander, as will all of the initial responders.

If the incident is of a magnitude that requires evacuation, sheltering or special resources, or it’s a terrorist event, an entirely new element is added with another multitude of notifications and communications. Emergency managers, appointed/elected officials, transportation, health care providers, medical centers, shelter managers, other support agencies, and state and federal agencies will produce another cascading wave of communications. Interagency communications add complexity and demand to the scenario. Now add in the news media and you begin to see the inter workings of managed chaos.

The point of this overview is to identify that adequate planning, practice and understanding of how communication systems will function, system capacity and how agencies will communicate is critical. Failure to adequately plan and practice will often lead to the “avalanche effect,” where responders succumb to being buried or overwhelmed by unmet communications demands. Keep in mind that even the best radio communications systems and the best planning will probably not overcome the initial surge, but these basic steps will help to reduce the severity of the “communications avalanche” and speed up recovery. In many cases that have been repeatedly demonstrated, no one single communications system will be adequate to fulfill these communication demands.

Severe storms, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, mudslides, explosions, wildfires, hazardous materials incidents, terrorist attacks and other catastrophic events can and will occur in many places and without warning. Communications must be planned in accordance with the “all hazards” approach.


The following steps are recommended to minimize the “avalanche effect”:

  • Develop standard operating guides (SOGs) that will instruct and regulate communications at an incident. Educate, inform and involve appointed and elected officials in the process.

  • Implement a regional incident/unified command SOG.

  • Develop strong bonds with mutual aid agencies that are “day-to-day” responders with your agency and include them in your communications SOGs.

  • Develop formalized intrastate and interstate mutual aid plans to know what equipment is available and how to quickly mobilize it. This covers procedure and liability issues in advance.

  • Develop relationships between public safety agencies to create a new way of communication by removing cultural barriers and limitations.

  • Develop a Communications Interoperability Strategic Plan for your locality or region. Coordinate the local or regional plans with developing state and national strategies.


    2. Determine a plan for tactical communications interoperability within the jurisdiction and from outside. Consider the use of nationally proven connectivity devices such as the Communications Applied Technology’s Incident Commander’s Radio Interface (ICRI) available here or the JPS Communications ACU-1000 and others. In one sense you can establish an incident- or location-based or field deployed gateway while another mode is used as a permanent gateway or “console patch” between disparate systems.

    3. Consider solutions like Voice Over IP (VoIP) and network-based solutions to accomplish longer-range and versatile radio communications to virtually anywhere in the world where there is Internet access through solutions like WAVE (Wide Area Voice Environment), Catalyst Communications or M/A COM’s Network First. I have seen each of these demonstrated and they are very impressive.

    4. Develop pre-planned interoperability mediums, talk groups, frequencies and/or networks.

    5. Develop communications interoperability directories accessible from Internet-enabled wireless devices.

Develop multiple or parallel communications networks where feasible by exploring proven commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology. Incorporate systems that provide priority access and do not rely on the public telephone switch like Nextel’s Direct Connect. Develop effective community messaging strategy to keep the public informed through effective simultaneous text, desktop notification and voice messaging. I have had much success with the Emergency Email and Wireless Network (EEWN). EEWN has been providing free weather and health alerts and changes to the national threat level free to subscribers across the country since 1999. The EEWN charges a fee for use at the local level. Explore emerging communications solutions and applications. 1. CapWIN (the Capitol Wireless Integrated Network project). CapWIN is a three-state effort to link legacy systems with minimal impact on existing infrastructure and to provide data links between these systems and participating agencies. 2. FEMA’s Disaster Management Interoperability System (DMIS), a free program available to localities to provide situational awareness information (data, mapping, etc.) via the Internet. 3. Mesh-type networks that establish incident- or location-based communications networks and provide private voice and data applications. These systems permit remote communications separate from conventional land mobile radio systems (LMR) for monitor/detection and video surveillance to accomplish real time incident intelligence/activity. I have seen applications with Ascentry and 3eTI. Explore non-terrestrial (non-earth bound) based communications systems such as satellite systems. Keep in mind that they are susceptible to damage from asteroids and geomagnetic storms caused by sunspots. Explore broadband solutions that will enable video streaming to enhance situational awareness to emergency operations centers (EOCs). Project MESA has been working on the standardization of broadband applications focused for public safety. Get incident intelligence on demand and in real time. Northrop Grumman’s MobileShield is one of these applications that I have been watching. Integrate geographical information systems (GIS) and geographic positioning systems (GPS) into data applications to provide automatic vehicle locating (AVL) and on-scene accountability that also reduces the need for voice communications. I am working on an AVL project combining GPS-enabled wireless telephones and ActSoft Inc. to implement an affordable AVL solution for the fire service. Practice, practice, practice, especially for events that are considered “crisis” level, which generally occur less frequently that other emergencies. One day, effective communications and interoperability will be synonymous and no longer exist as separate terms. Charles Werner, a Firehouse® contributing editor and the TechZone editor for, is a 26-year veteran of the fire service and currently serves as the deputy fire chief for the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. Werner also is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Communications Committee, chair of the IAFC Technology Advisory Group, technology chair/webmaster for the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association, communications coordinator for the National Fire Academy Alumni Association and webmaster for the National Incident Management System Consortium. In addition, he serves as the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Interoperability Coordinator. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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