"These technologies are off-the-shelf. They are not hard to use. But they can really empower people to ease the pain and suffering of the victims of disasters," says the Naval Postgraduate School's Brian D. Steckler.
Jul 31 2008

Ready to Go

Speed means everything when establishing networks in a disaster zone.

Most network engineers will tell you that they rarely have enough time to deploy a network properly. When Mother Nature intervenes, however, there is often no time at all to cobble a network together.

“The problem emergency services have faced during major disasters is communications failure,” says Margot Murray, professor and coordinator of the Emergency Management Program for Durham College’s School of Justice and Emergency Services in Ontario. “As well as the blackout, you also have to deal with a lack of interoperability.”

That’s when someone like Brian D. Steckler comes into play. Steckler is director of the Hastily Formed Networks Center at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. (faculty.nps.edu/dl/HFN/index.htm). The center designs emergency communications networks and trains others in their use.

The focus is on best practices and tools that users can deploy easily — easily, that is, if an agency has prepared in advance, says Steckler. “You have to have it all pre­arranged, pre-positioned, pre-contracted, pre-trained-on and pre-tested. If you can’t communicate, you can’t operate.” And that preparation can take months.

Cache and Carry

There are tools that can help. For instance, Steckler uses a pair of Cisco Tactical Communications Kits (TCK).

Larry Wentz at the National Defense University says that many commercially available hardware and software products can support users in the short term. Wentz, author of a best-practices primer on emergency communications, suggests that military and civilian agencies use portals and metadata repositories as the basis for distributed information systems.

In doing research for NDU, Wentz, a senior research fellow at the university’s Center for Technology and National Security Policy, has identified off-the-shelf tools and commercial services that agencies can turn to for on-the-fly comm.

As he notes in his An Information and Communications Technology Primer, if infrastructure has been damaged, responders can roll out transportable transmission systems and deploy Wi-Fi hot spots to provide additional capacity and coverage. Commercial satellites can support voice communications and remote access to the Internet, with VSAT links and networks handling temporary fixed-installation needs.

“The real challenge is not finding the components … but rather in finding a rational management solution to linking, coordinating and making the best use of the systems that are set up by multiple responders, civilian and military,” according to the primer.

Wentz notes that miniaturization and the boom in portable technology — notebooks, handhelds, mobile network devices, Global Positioning System receivers and small multifunction printers — have changed the ability of response teams to use technology in the field.

“The civil-military community needs to find ways to employ ICT as the core means to achieve ‘unity of effort’ across the civil-military boundaries in support of complex operations,” Wentz says. “More extensive use of commercial ICT by the military and civilian agencies is a step in the right direction.”

But he adds that technology is only an enabler; people must be willing to work together. The building of trust and social networking has to take place before a crisis, Wentz says.

Tech in Use

Steckler says one way to encourage coordination is through demonstrating technology approaches that work, which he does with his two TCKs. He first received the Cisco kits in September 2004 and uses them for training his students and for actual emergencies.

The kits let him establish a satellite communications uplink and a wireless cloud wherever he is.

25,000 & 3,500 The number of local emergency operations centers and National Guard units, respectively, that typically field the first teams that respond to emergencies on U.S. soil
Source: Justice Department

“The VoIP phones connect via the satellite to the Internet and then to a router in my lab in Monterey, which links into the school’s private branch exchange,” says Steckler. “I can be in a remote village in the Philippines and make calls anywhere in the world just as if I was sitting at my desk on campus.”

In 2005, he was working with the Royal Thai Armed Forces as part of the Coalition Operating Areas Surveillance and Targeting System project when the Dec. 26 tsunami hit. Steckler ran to the coast, set up the TCK at a Buddhist temple that was being used as a morgue and grave-registration center, and established a wireless cloud. He then ran a WiMax link 7 kilometers to the nation’s largest refugee camp and set up a Wi-Fi mesh network covering the camp.

“These technologies are off the shelf. They are not hard to use. But they can really empower people to ease the pain and suffering of the victims of disasters,” says Steckler.

He and a school team also traveled to Bay St. Louis and Waveland in Mississippi to help with Hurricane Katrina recovery. They used a VSAT uplink from the kit to make the first connections. They then created a wireless cloud around a hospital complex and extended coverage through a mesh network to cover both towns.

“The TCK got us up quickly as the first node, then we expanded out from there with additional meshed Wi-Fi points,” Steckler says.

Such tools make it easier to set up an emergency network, but Steckler emphasizes that it is not enough to just buy a kit, or create one using items at hand, and then stick it in a storage room. He advises agencies to ensure ahead of time that they will have satellite availability. It’s also crucial to ensure that the users are trained on setting up and tearing down the equipment — in a hurry.

Photo: John Lee/Aurora Select