Hold the phone after a disaster

The East Coast is experiencing a rare and potentially catastrophic one-two punch: A 5.8 magnitude earthquake — the strongest most area residents have experienced in their lifetimes — shook the region on Aug. 23 and the area braced over the following weekend for Hurricane Irene.

The quake did relatively little damage, but showed the limitations of our communications infrastructure, as cellular systems were quickly but briefly overwhelmed.

In the wake of that event, the Federal Communications Commission wants to explore ways to prioritize cell calls to 911 during an emergency and the wireless industry is calling for more spectrum. For the time being, however, it is up to end users to preserve bandwidth as it becomes a precious and increasingly limited commodity during emergencies. This could means changing some habits.

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This is not the first time the FCC has looked at the effect of earthquakes on communications. The commission held a half-day forum in May with officials from industry, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, other U.S. agencies and Japan to glean lessons from that country’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami and from the 2010 quake in Haiti.

“It is an unfortunate irony that disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes often provide the best opportunity to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of communications infrastructure,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in opening the meeting.

The evolution of the nation’s communications infrastructure from analog circuit-switched to digital IP-based technology has helped to increase capacity and improve reliability, but capacity still is limited and demands are increasing with the growing number of devices and applications in daily use.

“We need a better understanding of how to minimize outages across all communications platforms and how we can strengthen the reliability of emergency communications, while balancing the limited resources of communications carries,” Genachowski said.

One of the recommendations to come out of the May forum for improving communications during disasters already is widely adopted — integrating social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook into public safety communications. Not only are public safety agencies making use of these channels, they proved effective for individual communications during the Aug. 23 East Coast quake.

But in the end, social networks depend on the capacity of the Internet itself and the availability of Internet connectivity for the end user. Like the cellular systems that continued operating after the quake but which could not accommodate the surge of calls once their capacity was reached, these links are vulnerable to outages, degradation of service and limited capacity.

Any communications infrastructure is built with a finite capacity, and it generally is not cost effective for providers to build in capacity to accommodate extreme spikes.

While waiting for the FCC and the telecom industry to make more improvements, a few low-tech tricks can help us live with the infrastructures we have during crises:

If landlines are working, use them. It has become second nature to depend on wireless communications, especially in an emergency. Public Service Answering Points routinely report that cell phones make up the majority of the 911 calls they receive. So when the wind blows or the ground shakes, cellular systems become overloaded. But during the recent East Coast quake, landlines were operating fine. So if you have access to a wireline phone that is working, use it rather than your cell.

If you must go wireless, text rather than talk. The engineers at Sprint Nextel say that their system can handle 50 text messages or more for each voice call because of the processing required to set up a voice call.

Communicate when you need to. There is a powerful urge to ask, “did you feel that?” But try to limit your texts and calls and avoid the urge to dial a number or send a text just to see if you can get through.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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