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Surviving the Storm: Using Technology to Save Lives during Hurricane Season

Author: Mike Maiorana

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2017-07-28
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FEMA's Urban Search and Rescue Teams from Missouri Task Force 1 look for residents who may be stranded in a Lumberton, NC neighborhood that was flooded following Hurricane Matthew.  FEMA Photo/Jocelyn Augustino

Last year, we once again saw the power and devastation a major storm can cause when Hurricane Matthew roared up the East Coast, leaving a trail of destruction in its path. The 2016 season was the most active since 2012, with 15 named storms, including seven hurricanes and four major hurricanes. This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts a 45 percent chance of an above-average number of storms this year. First responders should expect to again have their hands full across the eastern Gulf portion of the United States during another active storm season.

From a preparation and response standpoint, it’s essential for first responders to have emergency communications plans in place to help them organize, stay connected, maintain their own safety, and most importantly, save lives during and after severe storms.

A connected world means a safer world for emergency personnel, and the quicker they can share information, the better they can assess a situation, and formulate and execute a response plan.


Keeping First Responders Connected During a Hurricane

During and in the aftermath of a hurricane, seconds count. For first responders dealing with an emergency, a dropped call or a scrambled transmission is not just an inconvenience — it’s the difference between life and death. Timing is critical for incident response and access to a strong, reliable communications network is essential for first responder organizations to provide effective services, as well as watch over the communities they serve.

It’s also essential to have a robust network in place that is flexible and reliable enough to handle high-traffic demands during an emergency, while also being able to prioritize the most important traffic to keep critical first responder communications flowing.

Floodwater surrounds homes in Nichols, South Carolina following Hurricane Matthew. FEMA Photo by Dominick Del Vecchio - Oct 12, 2016

Interoperability between agencies is also critical. Large-scale events or incidents will typically impact first responders from multiple agencies, critical infrastructure organizations and other key public safety stakeholders. The ability of these disparate groups to seamlessly communicate via truly integrated and interoperable communications technologies is vital to an effective response.

First responders have an array of technology innovations at their disposal today, including hand-helds, remote networks, and mobile cell sites (sometimes referred to as cells-on-wheels or COWs) that provide temporary network coverage in locations where permanent coverage is compromised. Newer, more advanced technologies are also available, including drones than can provide additional network coverage, perform high-definition video surveillance, and even drop life vests to flooding victims. Autonomous vehicles and robotic equipment can get into places first responders can’t to provide situational awareness information. And telemedicine, Internet of Things (IoT), and Smart Cities applications can give first responders access to an incredible amount of data to guide their emergency response.

Network connectivity is critical for citizens as well. One of the biggest issues during a storm-related disaster is making sure those in need can get in touch with authorities immediately. Processing a flood of voice and data traffic during hurricanes can consume a significant chunk of bandwidth, which can potentially block other critical incoming and outgoing information, thus decreasing response times. For this reason, keeping high-speed data networks connected during times of crisis is vital, giving the public the ability to connect with public safety and giving first responders the ability to quickly receive vital information in critical situations.


Applying Intelligent Tracking Technology to Help Manage Hurricane Response

Additionally, it’s crucial to know where mobile units are at all times during a storm to help keep emergency responder teams safe and to respond to those in need rapidly. Embedded sensors within vehicles can help keep tabs on the location and performance of individual squad members to help maintain safety and provide a quick response when seconds count – especially in challenging situations with high winds and flooding, enabling teams to:

  • Stream GPS coordinates of response vehicles to command headquarters.
  • Access live video and audio feeds, and even control on-dashboard cameras from the command center to gain a better view of a situation remotely.
  • Route and dispatch the nearest available unit to those in need.
  • Monitor key performance metrics to make longer term improvements to help improved safety and routing, reduced idling and fuel consumption, and increased resource utilization.

FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer examines a washed out road in Flagler Beach, Florida, damaged by Hurricane Matthew. FEMA Photo by Eileen Lainez - Oct 10, 2016

Tips to Help Prepare for Hurricane Response

Maintaining reliable connectivity for first responders during a hurricane, whether on a city, state or federal level, means working with a public safety technology partner to have a robust plan in place should the worst happen. Some of the ways emergency services organizations can – and should – be working with their technology partner to prepare include:

  • Look for a reliable solution that keeps you connected to the Internet and any data networks you might use, even if the power goes out. In fact, plan for the power to be out and the office to be inaccessible.
  • Consider back-up routers along with mobile applications like navigation and fleet management systems.
  • Consider a fleet of portable emergency equipment that can be deployed quickly to keep customers connected or restore damaged connections as soon as possible. And include backup batteries, which add an additional layer of backup power.
  • Obtain the ability to deploy mobile communication units including mobile cell sites and emergency command centers. Mobile cell sites are designed to boost the network for residents and emergency workers in disaster-stricken areas. Mobile emergency command centers take the command-and-control function to where it’s needed most.
  • Arrange to use broadcast text messaging to stay in touch with your personnel or key constituents.
  • Coordinate with vendors for pre-arranged fuel deliveries with tankers poised and in position to quickly respond to hard-hit areas.

It’s also imperative for emergency services teams to stay connected during a storm by having their provider send out teams to top off and test generators and battery backups in cells sites before anything even happens. During Hurricane Katrina, for example, first responder communication systems went down partly because there were not enough provisions for backup power.

Wireless technology continues to help shape public safety by enhancing collaboration between personnel, allowing for faster and more precise decision making, and improving the safety of communities across the country. Careful planning is important to prepare personnel and other government agencies to collaborate on the fly during emergencies. With so many technological and policy changes in the U.S., and a particularly tough storm season forecast for this year, now is the time for first responder agencies to assess their connectivity plans to make sure they can continue running their operations with little to no disruptions ahead of any natural disaster.

Mike Maiorana, SVP of Public Sector at Verizon Enterprise Solutions.


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