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Volume 30, Issue 1

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New disasters come with less warning and leave with greater chaos than earthquakes. From a commercial standpoint, structural damage created by earthquakes can virtually put a company out of business. For a hospital, however, too much is at stake to have all operations come to a halt.

In 1989, an earthquake created major structural damage on the grounds of Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, an internationally recognized leader in research and educational facilities for treating childhood diseases. The main research facility on the multi-site Childrens Hospital campus was severely weakened and all offices were forced to evacuate. Testing of the structure concluded that the only remedy was demolition and rebuilding--a process which would take five years.

The hospitals 27 research divisions were housed in the doomed building, yet in a real estate miracle new offices were quickly acquired directly across the street from the hospital campus in the Hollywood Presbyterian Tower, an independent medical center. Despite the amazing proximity between the hospital campus and the new offices, an unexpected obstacle came about: reconnecting the telecommunications link between the Smith Tower, the central building on the hospital campus, and the earthquake-exiled offices in the Hollywood Presbyterian Tower.

On the Childrens Hospital campus, all of the buildings were connected by computer cabling. This was not a difficult feat, since the hospital was free to dig up its grounds for cable installations. Yet once it took space at the Hollywood Presbyterian Tower, Childrens Hospital was unable to obtain the necessary right-of-way permits to dig a trench across the road to install new computer cables. And even if the permits were obtained, connectivity required instant speed and the laborious cable installation task could not serve the hospital's time-sensitive schedule.

The next option was leasing telephone lines. Unlike cable installations, the lines were already in place; however, the high data transmission speeds needed for computer connectivity would not have been possible. Furthermore, budgetary considerations of obtaining sufficient capacity vetoed the additional expense of this option.

A third option came in microwave transmissions between the two sites. However, this telecommunications vehicle required a lengthy delay for governmental approval, which the hospital could ill afford, and the data processing staff honestly admitted a strong lack of comfort with this technology.

The solution to this problem came in a rather unlikely form: laser beams. Not the thick bolts of fluorescent power which science fiction heroes use to slice something in half, but rather a local area network (LAN) connectivity technology in which data, audio and video transmissions are linked via infrared lasers in exterior line-of-sight applications. Despite the strangeness of the set-up, its advantages were staggering: no need for lengthy or disruptive installation, no need for governmental approval, no expensive maintenance and no oversized monthly leasing fees.

Childrens Hospital acquired the L00-18 system which is designed to send and receive Ethernet transmissions at a full 10 Megabits per second on infrared laser beams operating at a wavelength of 820 nanometers, which is invisible to the human eye. Its design allowed for a 24-hour transmission of high-speed data requirements, including clinical research material, word processing and electronic mail, at speeds superior to conventional systems. The system was fully compliant with IEEE 802.3 standards and fit right into the existing LAN.

The hospital chose an unobstructed line-of-sight path between the tenth floor of the Smith Building and tenth floor of Hollywood Presbyterian Tower. (The technology requires an unobstructed transmission path.) L00-18, like all of the LACE products, are short-haul telecommunications systems which only reach distances of up to three-quarters of a mile. However, the hospital only needed to connect a space of 1,100 feet. Installation took less than a day.

The stopgap disaster recovery system not only kept communications active between the sites, but began to produce considerable savings in terms of electronic mail transmissions. Memorandum which would normally be paper-based was carried by laser beams between the facilities, with time savings (no need for delivering paper), cost savings (no need for purchasing paper) and ecological savings (no need for wasting paper).

In January 1994, another earthquake hit the Los Angeles area. The L00-18, which is housed in weatherproof casing and is not disrupted by the city's fabled smog or sunshine, held up brilliantly as the ground shook. Transmissions did not fail during the earthquake nor in its chaotic aftermath, which registered thousands of aftershocks. In view of the invaluable hospital information being transmitted via laser beam, it could not afford to go down.

Michael Berman is Vice President of Laser Communications, Inc., in Lancaster, Pa.