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Volume 30, Issue 3

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Developments in wireless communications have been nothing short of amazing in the past 10 years. We can easily communicate anywhere in the world – not just by phone but also via the Internet – all on a hand-held device. We eagerly await the next iPhone or other personal data management aids. We are equally concerned when major wireless players such as Research in Motion (RIM) have difficulty keeping their systems operational.

Regardless of the pros and cons of wireless technology at the consumer level, when we turn our attention to emergency response, business continuity, and disaster recovery, wireless communications are truly essential. Wireless products and services help you execute your emergency plans quickly and efficiently when time really counts.

Wireless Technology Options

Let’s begin by examining traditional wireless technologies and their use in emergency situations. The following technologies provide network infrastructure diversity and disaster recovery:

n Infrared – When you use a remote to change television channels you are using infrared technology. It’s not radio – it’s invisible light. Infrared requires line-of-sight, meaning that each end of the link must be visible to the other. Infrared is popular, and devices can easily be mounted in a building. It has no special operating requirements such as power, and transmitter/receivers can send signals through windows.

  • Microwave – Similar to infrared, microwave technology is line-of-sight but differs in that you need a license to operate a microwave system. Microwave can offer network diversity by providing access to carrier switching offices.
  • Unlicensed Point-to-Multipoint Communications –
  • Point to multi-point (PtMP) wireless systems deliver secure high-speed Internet and Ethernet access in indoor and outdoor environments. PtMP does not require an operating license, and systems are typically used to provide broadband Internet access usable by many Internet Service Providers (ISP/WISP) and network operators.
  • Cell Sites on Wheels – In situations such as the events of Sept. 11, 2001, where cellular service was totally disrupted in the Ground Zero area, limited cellular service may be restored using a self-contained cellular base station on wheels, known as a COW. Most mobile communications companies have an inventory of COWs.
  • Two-Way Radio – Also known as walkie-talkies or handy-talkies, two-way radios are portable devices that transmit and receive voice signals in designated frequencies. Systems are available in mobile, stationary base, and hand-held portable configurations.
  • Amateur (HAM) Radio – If you are an emergency management or BC/DR professional, be sure to know amateur (ham) radio operations in your area. They represent an often unused alternate communications network that could be valuable when other modes of communication are disabled.
  • GMRS and FRS – Two alternatives to satellite phones and two-way radios are Family Radio Service (FRS) and General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). GMRS requires a license. Both services, which are intended for individuals and not organizations, can operate at distances of several miles outdoors and may be useful within a large facility or campus.
  • Wireless Mesh Networks – Unlicensed Wi-Fi mesh networks are used in city-wide wireless applications, but could also be used for setting up emergency networks. Examples include Belair Networks and Tropos Networks.
  • Wireless Disaster Recovery C² – Specialized services for rapid deployment of disaster teams use wireless handheld devices to perform activities such as large-scale damage assessments and claims processing. One example of this is ServiceMesh, from Cisco Systems, and it provides secure, reliable, always-on high-speed wireless access, rapid wireless mesh deployment, and a unified platform interagency communications.
  • Multiple Wireless Carriers – As part of an emergency response and BC/DR program, some may want to have multiple cell phones provided by different carriers. That way, in a major event that disables one or more cellular systems, it’s possible that one carrier will emerge relatively healthy. One such company, Cricket Broadband, doesn’t require contracts, cabling, and is easy to plug in, connect, and click.
  • Wireless Concierge Services – Another wireless technology for motor vehicles is OnStar service. It’s called a concierge service; it first appeared in 1997 and uses a combination of digital cellular service and GPS technology.
  • iPhones and Other Wireless Devices – iPhone and other similar hand-held devices are highly popular and can also be used for disaster recovery. Since iPhone 3G devices can connect to Microsoft ExchangeTM and other standards-based servers for corporate e-mail, calendar, and contacts, it’s a natural for getting messages to employees quickly and securely.
  • Satellites – Satellite phones use technology contained in satellites that orbit the Earth in various paths. Two satellite network types support emergency activities: geostationary satellite systems (GEO) and low Earth orbit satellites (LEO). Geostationary (GEO) satellites are located several thousand miles above the earth in a fixed position. There are about 300 GEO satellites in orbit, and their coverage area is up to one third of the globe. Their uses in disaster include providing seismic and flood-sensing data to government agencies; broadcasting disaster-warning notices; and facilitating communications and information flow among government agencies, relief organizations, and the public. By contrast, LEO satellites operate in lower orbits (e.g., between 780 km and 1,500 km) and can operate with handheld units about the size of a large cellular phone.

Planning Issues

Be sure that your emergency teams carry at least one wireless communications device. Include mobile device numbers in contact lists. The level of wireless usage will of course depend on the disaster situation. For example, if your plan requires evacuating the office and working from home, communications can be via cell phones and PDAs.

It may be important to have access to satellite phones but be sure you also have primary and back-up assembly points available where staff can gather and a head count can be made.

Check to see that wireless devices you use can be made secure, as they are inherently less secure than wire-line networks. When integrating wireless communications into BC/DR plans, be sure to address security, e.g., using encryption.

When exercising emergency and BC/DR plans, be sure to include wireless devices as part of the exercise to make sure they work properly and the staff knows what to do. Further, document all wireless devices in your inventory.


Many different types of wireless communications are available, so plan your wireless solutions carefully. By adding wireless technologies to your BC/DR planning, you can help ensure that people will be able to communicate and that your network infrastructure will be resilient.

Paul Kirvan, FBCI, CISA, is an independent consultant, auditor, and member of the board of the Business Continuity Institute’s USA Chapter. He has more 23 years of experience in business continuity and disaster recovery.