Unfortunately, Sandy, the Hurricane turned Superstorm, has become yet another large-scale disaster, with ongoing effects for the foreseeable future.
During my tenure at the FCC, I had the opportunity to serve a role in the federal National Response Framework (specifically, Emergency Support Function #2 – Communications). Throughout my career, including my current position with APCO, I have also had the privilege to work with police, fire, and EMS professionals, PSAP directors and staff, and state and local emergency operations center personnel. I cannot overstate my respect for these dedicated public safety professionals at all levels of government. They deserve enormous credit for helping to save lives and improve conditions for those affected by the storm.
It seems with each new unfortunate event such as Sandy, there are unique takeaways and lessons learned, which we build upon to try to better prepare for the next time. The following is what strikes me at the moment:
- Where back-up generators (including those intended to supplement batteries) and other key network elements exist at communications facilities, those placed at ground level, underground, or in basements are vulnerable to failure from storm surge, as in the case of Sandy.
- Placing cell sites on rooftop locations helps to increase coverage and capacity, but also raises issues about the ability to safely and legally store fuel to power back-up generators.
- The general public is increasingly finding it important to have access to cell phone charging stations when power outages are widespread and lengthy. The same may be applicable to first responders.
- Mobile “apps” are playing a much larger role in response and recovery (see #3). For example, Google put out crisis response map overlays showing locations of emergency shelters, evacuation zones and other very useful information. Also, the Red Cross has developed apps for various disasters (hurricane, earthquake, wildfire), shelter locations, and first aid instructions.
Finally, I’d like to briefly address how Sandy’s impact relates to FirstNet. To start with, there is no reason to draw conclusions concerning FirstNet based on the performance of commercial wireless networks. I am expressing no opinion on the subject of how commercial networks fared. But let’s be sure to understand that the whole point of the public safety broadband legislation was to provide public safety with its own network resources, not a network that, as some incorrectly believe, would simply “ride” on commercial networks.
This is why a united public safety community rallied for, and Congress provided, spectrum and funding specifically for the public safety broadband network. The need to leverage existing commercial, private, and public infrastructure is essential to reduce costs and hasten availability. That is not inconsistent with FirstNet’s other statutory requirement to “ensure the safety, security, and resiliency of the network.” (Section 6206(b)(2)(A)) Nor is it inconsistent with FirstNet’s charge, as part of its required consultation with state, tribal, and local jurisdictions, to address the “adequacy of hardening, security, reliability, and resiliency requirements.” (Section 6206(c)(2)(A)) Indeed, the funding provided for this network is intended to provide that additional level of hardening and coverage that is necessary for public safety communications.
At the same time, even the most hardened facilities are vulnerable to extreme physical forces, whether natural or man-made. That is why we must also continue to focus on the need for deployable infrastructure, as noted in FirstNet Board Member Craig Farrill’s Conceptual Network Architecture Presentation.
Final point (for now): Sandy highlights one of the principal purposes for the FirstNet network – to ensure a nationwide level of interoperability, so that every responding federal, state, and local public safety agency can seamlessly communicate with each other.