Wireless tech goes to work in search for survivors

Federal Emergency Management Agency

Immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, a group of employees in Lucent Technologies' wireless division met to see if there was something they could do to help. The next morning, the group concocted a plan to use standard wireless equipment and directional antennae in an effort to locate cell phone signals under the rubble at ground zero.

After contacting New York's fire and police departments, Lucent sent a small group of volunteers the evening of Sept. 12 to assist rescuers working under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said company spokes.man Frank Briamonte.

Since the attacks, Lucent and several other telecommunications companies have volunteered their expertise and assistance in trying to find survivors trapped in the ruins of the two fallen towers.

"It's unprecedented," said Karl Rauscher, Lucent's network reliability director. He founded and is coordinating the Wireless Emergency Response Team (WERT)—a consortium of major communications service providers created to aid in search, rescue and recovery efforts.

Established Sept. 12 under the authority of the federal National Communications System and the National Coordinating Center for Telecommunications, the consortium brings together industry telecom experts who are using state-of-the-art technologies, such as advanced monitoring techniques and radio frequency sniffers, to help search for survivors.

Using portable equipment, Lucent sent teams of three to eight people to try to detect any signal, called a "registration," from the holes at the site, Briamonte said. However, cell phones must be on for the equipment to detect a signal, and it was unlikely that their batteries would still be working after several days. Briamonte said many signals turned out to be false alarms that occurred because rescue workers were using cell phones.

"We're doing our small part to help out in the disaster, but we're doing our best," he said. The volunteers "felt good about the fact that they could use their resources and talents to help in the search-and-rescue efforts, but it's been a roller coaster of emotions being on the site."

BellSouth was approached by WERT and FEMA to establish a call center, staffed by company volunteers 24 hours a day in its Atlanta headquarters, to collect and log the cell phone and pager numbers of people believed to be missing in the disaster, said BellSouth spokeswoman Peg Bernhardt.

Numbers were relayed to WERT hourly and subsequently given to wireless carriers that can check "to see if the line is active on the system and if it's active in the vicinity of midtown Manhattan. They can somehow use that line as a homing device to pinpoint the site of the cell phone or pager," she said.

No survivors have been found using the technology, although two or three people have been located and their names taken off WERT's list, she said. Rauscher said the center received between 4,000 and 5,000 calls in the week after the attacks, but the volume had since slowed considerably.

WERT is currently preparing a report for various federal agencies on how to maintain the emergency response team and improve it on an ongoing basis, Rauscher said.


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