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9-1-1 Magazine: Managing Emergency Communications

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Communications Network Surge Management: Coping At The Local Level

Author: Bruce Thorburn

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-06-16
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By identifying the possible things that can create emergency situations to our voice, data, and video pathways we can attempt to find ways to plan for or respond to them.

Local governments regularly have to deal with problems to our communications accesses during and after emergencies. These include not only our agency communications needs but also the needs of our citizens and visitors. Coping with this issue requires analysis and planning prior to emergencies, closely monitoring situations during emergencies, and execution of plans for recovery and response after emergencies.

The 2004 hurricane season in Florida and more recently the February 2, 2007 tornado event in Lake County (Groundhog Day Tornadoes) plainly evidenced the need for comprehensive analysis of potential emergencies and how they can or might affect our communications pathways and how we can respond to them.

Firstly, a comprehensive effort to review the demographics of one’s local area is the basis to determine how to meet the challenges of communications losses. One should analyze the many potential emergencies that might occur locally whether they are caused by weather, accident, or external or internal terrorism or sabotage. One should identify as many of the possible points of failure in communications should an emergency occur. By identifying the possible things that can create emergency situations to our voice, data, and video pathways we can attempt to find ways to plan for or respond to them. The potential loss of telephones, cable television, and radio systems affect not just the first alert responders but also the personnel assigned to search and recovery and the citizens and visitors trying to cope with the aftermath of an emergency event.

Once one has identified the probable potential causes of localized emergencies then one may adopt a plan to attempt to identify the resources that may be needed to respond to the emergency before, during, and after it occurs. These resources may be participating public and private agencies as well as supplies, especially fuel reserves, and equipment to be used as backups or replacements.

One of the best ways of doing this is to develop and maintain, as it is an ever-changing document, a Continuance of Operations Plan or COOP. This document outlines all of the “what ifs” that one might need to consider and the responses that should occur should there be a temporary or long term failure of our systems operations. This plan should also identify and detail names, contacts numbers, and Email addresses for support services that can assist in the response recovery efforts. The list should also identify an escalation list of contacts depending on the scope of the emergency event.

It is important to remember also that each responding agency may well depend upon the ability of another agency in order to effectively make their own response. For example, the Lake County tornadoes destroyed power, cable television, telephone, and radio systems in parts of the County but the restoration of these could not be achieved until the efforts of the first responders in search and recovery were affected. Included in this was the monumental task of debris removal so that the various companies’ crews could get into the affected areas.

The COOP should also detail the hardware, software, and databases that might need to be recovered and the funding mechanism available, if any, in the short and long term of the aftermath of any given emergency. The plan should identify where an off premise site might be available to house the tools necessary should a localized disaster occur. And, most importantly, what personnel are or might be available to answer the call for recovery over and beyond those needed for continued operations as the effects of a large event severely stress both the networks handling an increase in calls but also the human resources due to the effects of the same increases as well as potential personal issues affected by the event.

The following is a list of potential things that can be done to plan for and respond to an emergency event. These have either been used or in the process of implementation due to emergency events occurring requiring response:

  1. Established networks that are diversely routed so that there are no single points of system failure. This may entail reviewing the network capabilities of the local telephone and cable companies to see what, if anything is possible for recovery.
    Many telephone companies have mobile disaster response vehicles to respond to disaster areas. These should be identified for use after the emergency event. One may consider use of the federal Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS). Telecommunications Service Priority (TSP) is available to ensure the most expedient recover of operations for land line units.
  2. Ensuring that E9-1-1 systems have alternate and default routing capabilities between and among Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) as well as between and/or among surrounding counties, if possible. This assurance of inter-operability provides the basis for receiving the calls in order to respond to them.
  3. Maintaining plans for the loss of radio towers and the maintenance of communications between responding agencies. Many wireless carriers can respond by placing Cellular on Wheels (COWs) sites in affected areas. Wireless Service Priority (WSP) can be used to get cellular services up soonest.
  4. Mobile Command Posts which can be moved to an affected area for communications maintenance.
  5. Pre-selected sites where communications hook ups can be establish quickly as near as possible to a disaster-affected area.
  6. See if there is a company that can provide a mobile phone center using satellite phones for responders, volunteers, citizens, and visitors for local and long distance calling.
  7. See if your local telephone provider(s) can arrange a bank of coin telephones for free access to local and long distance calling from affected areas if there are any services available. This also, is a benefit to responders, volunteers, citizens, and visitors. Embarq did this in two (2) areas of Lake County devastated by the Groundhog Day tornadoes and it was very much appreciated by all of the users
  8. Connection of one’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to any available Public, Education, and Government (PEG) channels on local cable systems.
  9. This is invaluable for disseminating information to citizens and visitors prior to, during, and after emergency events.
  10. Use of an emergency notification system or service if one is available prior to, during, or after emergencies. Generally, these systems are capable of reaching wire line, wireless or broadband/digital customers locally or remotely if the appropriate databases for contact are available and there are networks operating to connect them; and most have mass contact capability.
  11. Having available satellite phones and standby services for first responders.
  12. Use of the County’s website for weather connectivity and information as well as for event alerts.

As with most problem solutions, costs may or will be involved; but the need to respond to our citizens and visitors in emergency situations is critically important to government and public safety.


Bruce Thorburn has been in the 9-1-1 Community since 1982, including five years with Orange County, Florida as their Database Manager, and 23 years with Lake County, Florida performing as E9-1-1/Addressing, Telecommunications, and Cable Television Regulatory Authority and Director. Bruce has also been the Legislative Liaison for Florida NENA since 1995 and been on the State Plan Technical Committee for Florida from its inception.

Photos by Randall Larson.  Top: Pinellas EMS, Florida.  Bottom: Jefferson County Sheriff, Colorado.




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