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July 01, 2011


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Jim Piper, RN

Of particular interest in the "Lessons Learned" re the Joplin tornado is the note to explore "Backpacks that have six or eight wireless cards in them all connected to different cell tower operators to up the chances of finding a signal at any given time."
Though a reasonable idea, cell phone communications have proven over and over to be extremely unreliable when a disaster strikes. Cellphones are complex 2-way radios and communicate with the >closest< cell phone tower of the particular provider (e.g., ATT, Verizon, etc.). If all the channels available for that particular tower are in use, you are denied access to make a call until a channel becomes available. Have a back pack with several phones from various providers is one solution that might or might not work.

Four examples come to mind that underscore this:

Northridge quake, Los Angeles (1994) where firefighters were unable to use their cell phones. The local media reporters called their editors on their cells and maintained the connection even though they were not actively reporting. This tied up all the local cell sites, denying their use by emergency personnel.

9/11 New York where emergency communications and major telephone connection equipment was all located in the twin towers.

Hurricane Katrina which wiped out all local communications but for satellite phones brought in by emergency personnel.

Santa Cruz County, CA 2009 lost both land-lie and cell communications when a fiber optic cable back bone in Santa Clara County was cut (by vandals).

A suggestion for EmComm (emergency communications) that might have merit as a secondary backup to attempts to get into remaining cell networks: the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES). These groups of radio operators ("amateurs" in name only) train with their own equipment to provide EmComm to whom ever can use their help. And, they provide this without charge of any kind.

The LAFD was not aware of the capabilities that could be brought to bear when the quake hit the Northridge area of Los Angeles. The Red Cross depended almost entirely on amateur radio to pass their relief traffic. Once things got a bit sorted out after Katrina blew through, amateur radio was used extensively by the Red Cross.

And, notable for a hospital application, the two hospitals in Santa Cruz County, CA depended on ARES amateur radio for communications to the outside (notably ordering critical supplies and blood).

Disaster planning must include something the military describes as "graceful degradation" of a capability. This simply means multiple backups. Amateur Radio/ARES provides an excellent -- no cost -- back up solution and is so noteworthy for consideration that it is included in every emergency communications planning recommendation that FEMA makes.


Thanks, Jim! That was a suggestion in the reporter's transcript. I thought it was interesting since most hospitals have a cache of cell phones for back-up communications, but they are likely from the same tower.

I agree that ARES is a wonderful option when available and have had the pleasure of getting to know the volunteers in Santa Paula, CA.

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