Ensuring Communication During Disasters

When disasters strike, one of the first casualties is often the local telecommunications grid. This was evident during the Maui wildfires in Hawaii and wildfires in Canada’s Northwest Territories, where cell phone service was disrupted. The loss of communication during a disaster can make a bad situation even worse, preventing people from contacting loved ones, receiving weather forecasts, and planning escape routes.

Disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes, and flooding are increasing in frequency and intensity, making it crucial for residents, first responders, and emergency managers to have means of communication. However, there are numerous obstacles that need to be overcome. In most communities, cell phones are the primary source of information gathering and distribution during a disaster. Local governments can send text alerts, and emergency managers have used social media platforms like Twitter to disseminate critical information. But these tools rely on active cell signal, which can be quickly disabled during a disaster, creating a dangerous information bottleneck.

Telecommunications networks consisting of towers, antennas, and wires are vulnerable at multiple points. Backup generators and portable cell sites can help restore service temporarily, but these tools often arrive after the peak of a disaster. Mapping the locations of telecommunications network infrastructure threatened by disasters is still a work in progress, complicated by the lack of available information from private companies. Companies like AT&T and Xfinity do not release detailed location data of their infrastructure.

To make telecommunications grids less vulnerable, different types of disasters require specific measures. Hurricanes require towers to withstand high winds, while wildfires call for the removal of flammable fuel near infrastructure. In the case of complete grid failure, communities and emergency managers can rely on sirens, AM radio broadcasts, and other technologies. However, the familiarity and speed of using regular tools like cell phones often make them the most effective communication option during an emergency.

Additionally, community support plays a vital role in disaster communication. During the Marshall Fire in Colorado, one resident relied on her phone and neighbors to navigate the wildfire and receive critical information about the safety of her home and pets. This highlights the importance of relying on the immediate community during times of crisis.

Overall, ensuring effective communication during disasters remains a significant challenge. However, efforts are being made by individuals, businesses, and local governments to overcome these obstacles and find innovative solutions for resilient communication networks.