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Public/Private Partnerships during Emergency Response & Recovery: An interview with AT&T's Tim Knezevich
Author: Randall D. Larson, Editor
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,
A joint hazmat exercise was held on September 23, 2014 in Medina, Ohio. AT&T Special Operations worked alongside Medina County Emergency Management Agency, Medina Township Police and Fire, Medina County Hazmat and twenty-five other agencies from the region, in a valuable learning experience in joint emergency response. [Click on photos to see them full size]
Through dozens of years of recent disaster and major emergency responses at both local and national levels, the public safety emergency response community has learned the value of partnering with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to manage the response and recovery phases of large emergencies. Even in the early response phase of an escalating wildfire or during the critical initial rescue operations after a natural or terrorist disaster, the support that NGOs such as utility services, infrastructure restoration companies, volunteer communications organizations like ARES and RACES can be invaluable and should be included in any major emergency or disaster response plan – and practiced regularly.
One such organization is AT&T, which serves as an excellent example of this kind of public/private partnership. In addition to offering rapid emergency response and an effective disaster recovery program, AT&T also recognizes the need to prepare and equip local communities to recover. AT&T maintains has a robust Network Disaster Recovery (NDR) program as well as a unique public/private partnership to prepare for large emergencies. And they don’t practice it on paper; they practice on pavement.
AT&T first started their NDR program in 1991 and has invested more than $600 million and 130,000 working hours into the program. When a disaster strikes, the AT&T NDR team can deploy a series of mobile network units, such as a Technology Trailer (which contains the same types of telecom equipment as brick-and-motor network centers) and cell site on wheels (COWs).The NDR team has deployed more than 70 times, most notably during: Super Storm Sandy (fall 2012); Colorado and California wildfires (2013); Hurricane Irene (2011); the Oklahoma tornado (spring 2013); Alabama/Tennessee tornados (2011); Santiago, and Chile earthquake (2010).
Most recently, AT&T and the Medina County Emergency Management Agency/Local Emergency Planning Committee conducted a hazardous materials functional exercise in the Ohio county. Participants trained together in preparation for real-life local hazmat emergencies involving rescuing victims from an underground facility explosion. Through this and similar public/private partnerships, AT&T’s NDR team empowers local communities to better prepare for and respond to unpredictable disasters.
9-1-1 Magazine spoke with AT&T’s NDR Special Operations team leader, Tim Knezevich about their program, and what advise they can share with responders and NGOs alike in formulating, practicing, and operating such a program.
9-1-1 Magazine: How significant is the need for public safety response agencies to form partnerships with private industry/utilities/etc in order to prepare for large emergencies (to not only maintain their own internal emergency recovery plans but in responding out into the community to perform rescue, recovery, etc)?
Right: Satellite COLT deployed on Staten Island following Hurricane Sandy’s landfall. November 7, 2012.
Knezevich: Preplanning is one of the fundamental basics in emergency response. Meeting those key stakeholders and understanding their needs and integrating their response plans will help eliminate confusion during an emergency response. Each sector whether it’s public and private has common goals and very specific needs. Identifying what resources they have and how to activate them is best done prior to a response. A partnership with key critical infrastructure providers will help your communities in getting back to normal.
The private sector response is important to the public safety organizations by providing specialty assets, like satellite COLTs, emergency communication vehicles, charging stations, generators, etc, to help restore the community back to a normal state. Responders and assets are brought in from non-impacted communities across the nation to relieve the burden on families within the impacted area.
9-1-1 Magazine: How did AT&T’s Network Disaster Recovery come about how have its objectives been put into play in the last two years’ worth of emergency responses?
Knezevich: AT&T’s Network Disaster Recovery program was formed in 1991 to develop a way to respond to the catastrophic loss of an entire network office. A large telecom central office is the nexus for the communications services for an entire city or region; it manages special services (9-1-1, video, etc.), routes traffic within a community, and moves data on and off the global fiber network. A central network office contains equipment that supports a broad array of services—from video, to cellular traffic, to high-speed, multi-spectrum IP data.
NDR’s deployment plan includes an assumption that no normal communications channels will be available when the team arrives at a recovery site in a disaster area. The team establishes “first-in communications capabilities using an Emergency Communications Vehicle (ECV). The ECVs use a satellite link to provide broadband LAN, Wi-Fi and voice (VoIP) connectivity for the team at a recovery site. Recovering a disaster area’s cellular communications requires a functional central office and the ability to restore the capabilities provided by individual cell sites.
Left: An NDR satellite COLT deployed to support the Aspen Fire ICS camp near Lakeshore, CA. August 2, 2013.
backhaul facilities have also been destroyed or are not available; the data from the temporary cell site is passed back to the AT&T network with a satellite link. Because of their rapid response capability, the ECVs and satellite COLTs have been frequently deployed to provide emergency communications capabilities for other responders or to provide service at intake centers for disaster victims.
NDR formed its Special Operations (hazmat) team to provide AT&T with the ability to maintain the telecommunications and support equipment in an office that has been contaminated by chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) hazards.
AT&T would activate its NDR Special Operations Team to assess damage to an office (after access was granted by governing authorities) that may have been compromised by hazardous materials. The team would perform the initial reconnaissance of the office and then perform maintenance tasks until the contamination was contained or otherwise remediated. The team could also be called upon to salvage critical network infrastructure from a contaminated office.
Right: AT&T Special Operations responders during a drill at the AT&T Central Office in Cheshire, CT on May 18, 2013.
NDR has not needed to deploy its technology recovery trailers for a large scale office response or its Special Operations team in the past two years; however, the team’s satellite COLTs and ECVs have been used frequently to provide emergency communications support following a wide variety of natural disasters.
Following Hurricane Sandy’s landfall in the fall of 2012, NDR had six satellite COLTs and four ECVs deployed in heavily impacted areas in the boroughs of New York City and in New Jersey to restore cellular service and to provide additional capabilities for emergency management agencies. Since then, the team has deployed satellite COLTs and/or ECVs for the following incidents: Winter Storm Nemo (February 2013); Moore, OK tornado (May 2013); Taloga, OK (June 2013); Black Forest Fire, CO (June 2013); Aspen Fire, CA (July 2013); Golden City, MO manhunt (August 2013); Butler/Salmon River Fire, CA (August/September 2013); Estes Park, CO flood (September 2013); Knifley/Liberty, KY pipeline explosion (February 2014); North Adams, MA windstorm (March/April 2014); Oso, WA mudslide (March/April 2014); Quapaw, OK & Mayflower, AR tornadoes (April/May 2014); July Complex Fire, CA (August 2014).
NDR manages its events and exercises with a modified version of the Incident Management System (IMS) that is used by government and private sector emergency responders in the United States and around the globe. NDR’s model, in use since 2000, was modified for telecommunications needs and to work with the team’s recovery practices. The IMS model places an emphasis on personnel accountability—a critical element in high-risk areas—and on performing a rapid, well-practiced recovery.
9-1-1 Magazine: What are the operational protocol for the NDR – what is its essential function, when and how does it deploy in its various regions, how can it be requested by local public safety agencies, and what is its operational place in an incident command structure?
Knezevich: When NDR is deployed to provide emergency communications support for an emergency management agency the relationship can be formally structured within that agency’s incident management structure or it may be ad hoc or fluid. Requests for support are managed through AT&T’s state External Affairs offices or are initiated by the U.S. DHS National Coordinating Center for Communications in Washington, DC.
An example of a formal relationship is when we deploy a satellite COLT to provide cellular service at a remote wildfire command camp in the US. The wildfires are normally managed by a Federal team that uses the NIMS model (CalFire-managed events use the same or very similar model). Our field team and its services become a function that reports to the Communications Unit of the Service Branch of the Logistics Section that reports to the Incident Commander. Our team’s interface within that ICS system is with the Communications Chief; we generally check in at the beginning and end of each day to get an assessment about the camp’s needs. Our service is just one element of the Comm Unit’s responsibilities for the overall fire; they are also managing the radios, repeaters, an on-site PBX, and often satellite-based Internet services.
As often, we are asked to deploy a satellite COLT and/or ECV to provide communications at a temporary command or relief center after a natural disaster such as a hurricane or a tornado. Federal, state, and local responders may all be massed in a vacant parking lot and need cellular, Wi-Fi, and/or VoIP communications.
9-1-1 Magazine: What has been the reaction of public safety responders, police, fire, EMS, to incorporating your company’s resources into their command and response structure?
Knezevich: The reaction has been favorable. Public safety understands that communication is paramount to operating efficiently. During a disaster getting timely information is critical. Understanding AT&T’s response capabilities and how they need to implement restoration. We have integrated into incident command systems across a number of diverse situations like wildfires, manhunts, tornadoes, etc.
9-1-1 Magazine: How does AT&T train with local public safety responders to familiarize each other’s capabilities and practice operational plans?
Knezevich: AT&T has trained with local and regional Hazmat teams and Fire Departments in response to our facilities. It’s a great opportunity to discuss equipment, response and procedures. During those exercises we work side by side with the responders.
Left: NDR technology recovery exercise site in McLean, VA on March 15, 2014.
9-1-1 Magazine: What lessons have been learned over the last two years’ experience to improve response plans, integration of this partnership during emergencies and training?
Knezevich: During our training exercises we like to share ideas and procedures. Often both sides walk away with a thought or idea. Having the right contacts, building and maintaining relationships, understanding capabilities, joint exercises to build trust in capabilities and skills.
9-1-1 Magazine: What would you like to say to public and private entities who don’t have this kind of system about the need for this – and where do they start in developing the kind of system that AT&T is exemplifying with its NDR?
Knezevich: Don’t wait! Create the relationship early with the private sector. Invite them to a table top exercise and help them understand the functions of your Emergency Operations Center. Assign someone to help them understand the process and explain what’s happening in the background. Encourage them to share their response plan and offer suggestions on how to work together.
This takes significant investment in money and time and requires alignment within the organization and its buy-in to a robust business continuity, emergency management and disaster recovery capabilities. AT&T has the commitment and attained DHS first private section certification.
For more information on AT&T's Network Disaster Recovery program, see www.corp.att.com/ndr/
Thanks to Kuriko Wong/ FleishmanHillard for facilitating this interview.