The Fire Service PIO: Planning for a Major Communications System Failure

April 18, 2022
Timothy Szymanski identifies the methods and tools that can be used to spread the word to civilians in the event that electronic devices and other systems are made inoperable by a catastrophe of some sort.

What if all normal everyday communication tools that you use daily—telephones, cellphones, internet, email, radio, TV, two-way radios—suddenly stopped working? Complicating matters even more: What if all utilities—electricity, cable/internet, wired telephone, water and natural gas—were lost at the same time?

How would you get the right information to the right people at the right time, which in this case would be immediately?

Furthermore, if it’s happening to you, it’s happening to everyone else, which means that you have a serious situation unfolding and you must inform people on what to do.

System compromise

This type of event occurred several times around the country: California, Florida, Louisiana and Texas, to name a few.

Everyone is affected by communication systems in their everyday life. According to Statista, in 2021, unique mobile internet users stood at 4.32 billion, which indicates that more than 90 percent of the global internet population use a mobile device to go online. In most cases, people would find life very difficult without the systems that are listed above. We might even say that the systems are vital and, in many cases, lifesaving.

How can communications or utility systems could be compromised?

Weather- or natural-related disasters can affect systems for a few hours, several months or years. Wildland fires are an example.

Other reasons include mechanical or technological failure of systems or equipment as well as catastrophic damage to equipment, such as power transformers or a mainframe to a computer system. Sometimes software degradation, where the operating system fails and the system that it operates shuts down, occurs. This could be because of a breakdown in the software development, or it could be intentional as a result of a hacker planting a virus. Sometimes accidents that involve motor vehicles or construction crews that encounter wiring, transformers and even buildings, which house special equipment, occur. Damage to underground communications or utilities could take days or weeks to repair.

Another disaster that could affect communications and utility systems is an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). An EMP is an intense burst of electromagnetic energy that’s caused by a sudden and quick acceleration of charged particles. The resulting energy destroys any electronic device that it encounters. The effect might spread to cause damage to building, utility, communication and even motor vehicle systems, either temporarily or permanently. There are three types of EMPs: solar in nature, which is known as a Coronal Mass ­Ejection (CME); lightning; and a manufactured EMP that’s used for warfare and destruction, which is known as a nuclear electromagnetic pulse (NEMP) or a non-nuclear military EMP (NNEMP).

Tools and planning

Regardless of the reason, if systems are down, you must implement other methods to communicate with the community. Remember, people expect two-way communications.

If your agency is affected by the failure, other public-safety agencies also probably are affected. Something of this nature should be managed via a regional approach.

A plan to oversee such an event should be in place. Local emergency managers are valuable resources to pull together the agencies that would be affected by such an event to develop a regional plan.

Methods for alternative dissemination of information are electronic traffic signs that are mobile and have their own generator as well as flyers and door hangers.

Collaborating with local volunteer organizations to go door to door or to post flyers at intersections is vital to getting the word out.

Amateur radio and citizens band radio groups are an excellent source of people who are technology- and radio-savvy and have their own equipment. Cellular and utility companies can bring mobile resources to the area to establish a temporary infrastructure.

The key is to be proactive and to have a plan before an event occurs—and to practice it. It isn’t “if it will happen.” It will happen. Readiness is a must. 

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