For Telecoms companies, disaster preparedness begins to reap rewards

As Hurricane Isaac approached the Mississippi and Louisiana coastlines towards the end of August 2012, local telecom providers were busy preparing to ensure that their networks remained online and services were disrupted as little as possible for their millions of customers. Verizon had been preparing for inclement weather for a year and was able to deploy a fleet of Cells on Wheels (COWS), Cells on Light Trucks (COLTS), and Generators on Trailers (GOaTS) to support the network in hard hit areas. In addition, they have trailers that serve as mobile communication centres with 50 charging points for customer cell phones. A crucial part in keeping the network operational is ensuring the provision of power to cell sites; Verizon planned logistics to ensure the availability and delivery of fuel to mobile units and generators.

Other local providers implemented similar technical measures for disaster response. In addition to such actions, it is also important to manage customer expectations by communicating the challenges of post-disaster communications. AT&T produced an effective outline of disaster tips for customers and small businesses, which highlights strategies such as ensuring that phone batteries are fully charged and making sure important numbers are stored on the handset. They also recommend that subscribers create family and/or business communication plans that define a central contact that is situated outside the disaster area. Importantly, they have highlighted that customers should expect busy networks and use alternative low bandwidth communication sources such as SMS rather than voice.

The importance of mobile operators being prepared for disasters has been increasingly recognised by the Government of the United States. For example, in March 2012, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that AT&T Inc. had become the first private sector company to be certified to DHS-selected standards under the Voluntary Private Sector Preparedness Program (PS-Prep).PS-Prep signals a move by the DHS to recognise that engagement of the private sector is critical to a resilient national infrastructure during disasters. The programme will provide certification standards that will enable private sector organisations to enhance their capacity to plan for, respond to, and recover from natural disasters and other threats.

As the winds of Hurricane Isaac subsided, it became clear that the networks had held up relatively well, and that the damage was not as severe as anticipated. One of the contributing factors in achieving this outcome was the recognition by both government and mobile operators that investing in preparedness is critical to maintaining effective communications and resilience in the network. By providing certification in preparedness (even if voluntary), AT&T has shown great leadership in advancing minimum preparedness standards, and in bringing the critical role of mobile networks as a core component of emergency response to the fore.

Photo credit: LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

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