Facing a massive recovery effort, sheriff’s offices in neighboring Hillsborough, West Palm, and Marion Counties, as well as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), the International Red Cross and the National Guard, dug in to assess the damage and help the region begin to repair. Residents in the immediate path of the storm were left with no means of getting food, water, or power. Aid organizations began shipping in food and water. Martial law and a mandatory curfew were instituted due to blackouts in the region.
Historically, first responders with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) would use radio dispatches to communicate during disasters. Rendered unreliable due to interference and the sheer volume of requests for help, HCSO needed a reliable, transportable communications solution that would allow its officers to communicate in the absence of power and electricity, and be moved as recovery efforts progressed to new parts of the region.
Other agencies and organizations involved in the recovery effort also needed an effective communication solution to work internally as well as with each other, and to communicate with officials at the state level, located elsewhere in Florida.
To alleviate this problem, these organizations adopted wireless network capabilities that enable uninterrupted and high-speed private data network availability and Internet access virtually anywhere, in any situation. To ensure the necessary reliability, they paired this network with a satellite broadband solution for reliable Internet connectivity during the recovery efforts when all landline communications were nonexistent.
Satellite broadband incorporates technology that provides the reliability, throughput, and high-speed connectivity needed for today’s data networks. It ensures uninterrupted high-speed private data network availability and Internet access, virtually anywhere, in any situation.
Because of its mobility, portability, and the use of satellite broadband access, a wireless communications network is capable of overcoming some of the significant challenges faced in disaster recovery. For example, most telephone poles (and lines) were downed. Routers were then placed on masts imported for the job and powered by 12-volt marine batteries. Within eight hours, the use of these routers created a total coverage area of approximately 60 square miles.
To allow all participating recovery teams to collaborate, authorities then connected the network to a mobile command center. The command center consisted of an 18-wheel truck with a fully functioning network operations center that managed a communications network with aggregate capacity of 1.544 Mbps at a 6 Mbps burst rate.
All systems critical to running the wireless data network were housed within the command center and quickly connected. For example, it is possible to set up a satellite antenna within 15 minutes of its arrival. With the connection of the satellite equipment to the law enforcement network and wireless LAN, the complete system had access to the outside world via the Internet.
With the link to the Internet established, local users had access to their proprietary applications and the remainder of the command center network functions. The recovery teams could now communicate around the region, the state and the nation.
Law enforcement’s first initiative was to ensure the safety and security of citizens and emergency responders. Because most street signs had been upended, mapping platforms were needed to guide non-local rescuers to those in need of help. As a result, police cars were mounted with cameras, which provided not only directional feedback, but also provided instant visibility into the devastation of the area for officers in the local and state-wide command centers.
This is possible because the network created by the use of wireless and satellite technology in this case offered a broadband connection, which enables rapid exchange of sizable data with live feedback. Live video monitoring of the disaster sites was fed to multiple command center hubs throughout the state to relay critical information to the recovery headquarters in Tallahassee for continued recovery planning and progress tracking.
The law enforcement aspect of the recovery also benefited from the availability of this network. Throughout the recovery effort, command centers provided access to license and vehicle registration databases and other applications to help undertake warrant searches and background checks, which were fundamental to preventing crime.
The implementation of the wireless, broadband network not only allowed authorities to communicate with each other but also enabled those in need of assistance to communicate with emergency officials. After installing the broadband communications systems, rescue and response times improved. With cameras in place in police cars and mapping systems available to command centers across the region, responders were able to quickly bring help to those in need. In addition, police cars were able to assess what areas needed the most attention and more easily lead citizens to distribution centers where food, water and medical assistance were available.
With satellite broadband communications in place, authorities could immediately access Internet-based applications and use live video feed to circulate critical information to executives and law enforcement agencies across the state. This enhanced ability to communicate allowed the state to develop a more strategic recovery plan and for a more effective deployment of necessary rescuers in the field at any given time.
Beyond its role as a primary communications source in disaster recovery, wireless and satellite broadband access serves as a viable backup option to established landline-based networks. Given that many natural disasters feature a backlash period (following weather conditions may cause other problems, temporary connections may temporarily fail, etc.), many authorities prefer to have satellite access in place to assure business continuity that they can call upon when needed.
For the government agencies, relief organizations and technology contractors involved in developing and utilizing a communications network in Florida following Hurricane Charley, their actions provided invaluable experience in utilizing wireless and satellite communications technology. It also should serve as an excellent example of how this technology can provide relief organizations with a better option for effective communication in a disaster setting, that will improve collaboration, response time and overall performance in the recovery effort.
Peter Carides is president and chief executive officer of Tachyon Networks, Inc. He has had a distinguished career in senior leadership positions with telecommunications companies serving the private and public sector markets.