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Volume 32, Issue 1

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Imagine a warm, sunny day along the coastline. Tourists walk the beaches. Employees are hard at work, and children are in school. Life is normal.

Now imagine, a large, potentially dangerous storm churning out in the ocean. Day by day, it grows in intensity and draws nearer to your area. Soon, it is considered a strong category two, potentially category three storm, and landfall is imminent within the next 72 hours.

With evacuation orders issued, area residents and businesses are urged to prepare for the worst. People scramble to secure their homes, gather their belongings and head to higher ground. Companies hustle to suspend or cease operations. Volunteers prepare shelters throughout the area, and public safety operations work to help those in need.

Anxiously, everyone continues to monitor the situation, listening to television and radio broadcasts, watching national radar and checking websites. Some receive word from local law enforcement, government agencies, or in some instances, their employers, through emergency notification systems. Others look to social media to gather or share information regarding the impending storm.

As extreme as this situation sounds, it is further complicated by what happens next.

The hurricane picks up speed and moves even closer in the overnight hours. Panic sets in. People overwhelm the area’s 9-1-1, 5-1-1 and 2-1-1 systems with calls, inadvertently leading to communications gridlock. Officials struggle to keep up with the constant demand for details regarding evacuation routes, shelter locations, medical care accessibility, etc. Businesses find sustaining or suspending operations is more difficult than anticipated, especially with fewer people and a shortened timeframe for response.

Reality hits. Critical gaps exist due to the lack of real-time information available on demand.

How is this possible, especially at a time when communication abounds and most of us seem to live in a world of information overload? The answer is a multifaceted one. Radio and television news is filtered and generalized, oftentimes resulting in the delivery of stale or inadequate details. Web sites may not be updated or accessible, especially in a contingency of this magnitude. Many people (my mother, for example) aren’t involved in social media networks, and some simply pay little or no attention to the world around them. Moreover, not every public safety operation or employer uses emergency notification technology.

Even worse, communication is dependent upon limited infrastructure, often located in the disaster area itself. There is insufficient capacity to meet peak caller demand, and it is nearly impossible to expand this capacity during an actual emergency. And, inbound bulletin boards, typically associated with emergency notification systems, are not designed to handle this type of volume.

Hence, the real and growing need for information – instant information – accessible by telephone from anywhere, at any time, and by everyone impacted by a particular event. Hence, the need for answers to fundamental questions like “When can I return home?,” “When and where am I to show up for work?,” “When will my child’s school re-open?,” “What days will debris be removed from my street?,” “Where can my family get fresh water and supplies?,” and “Where can we seek medical attention, if necessary?.”

The questions don’t stop here, and they don’t just come in the wake of a category three hurricane. Take the recent Fourmile Canyon Fire in Colorado, or the Iowa flooding in August 2010. In both instances, people not only found themselves displaced by the situation, but also confused by the sometimes conflicting details they received after (or so they thought) the danger had passed.

So how could these scenarios play out differently, or more importantly better, for everyone?

Imagine a means for proactive, current and centralized information-sharing exact to a person’s needs or location in the hours and days leading up to, during and following a disaster.

In other words, constant, one-number access to thousands of phone lines outside the impacted area that provide callers menu-driven or quick-key access to details specific to their individual need(s).

Now let’s return to our fictitious city of Windy Beach. Here, people learn about the storm’s progression in the usual ways. Only this time, they are provided a local number to call as often as necessary for additional, continuously updated information.

Designated individuals (e.g., local officials, company management, etc.) continually record or revise storm-related statements, regardless of their physical location, making the latest details immediately available to everyone.

Information is factual, current and applicable, and it does not require new communications infrastructure or additional resources. It feeds into a more orderly evacuation prior to the hurricane’s arrival; a greater sense of safety and security for those who remain behind; a timely, better organized return to the area; and a well-coordinated clean-up effort. It also helps businesses get back to business by providing employees constant access to details critical to their own safety and operational continuity.

As necessary as this type of system sounds, it remains, for the most part, technologically lackluster and unfunded. That is, outside the world of 2-1-1, where in 2009, more than 16.2 million calls were answered in the U.S. alone. Accordingly, the United Way organization is pressing for the passing of the “Calling for 2-1-1 Act” to fund the necessary requirements to better meet everyone’s informational needs.

Why is this important? In a report published May 27, 2010, United Way Worldwide stated that “many 2-1-1 centers lack the resources needed to build an adequate telecommunications infrastructure, provide appropriate staff levels and training, establish or maintain 24-hour-a-day service, ensure complete and accurate informational databases and reach rural populations.”

A solution of this type and scale should accommodate hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands of phone calls, per hour. It should fill the essential need for critical details, relative to public safety, personal property, business operations, and livelihood. It should do so both efficiently and cost-effectively, and it should be fully supported by the organization(s) providing instant information, as well as those who rely on it in contingencies.

Crises like hurricanes are fluid in nature. So too are the communications surrounding them. For this reason, operations should seek better, more reliable ways to provide people direct and immediate access to event-related information, specific to them. And, they should do so with immediacy – and imagination. That is, if they are going to fill the critical communications gaps that currently exist in both the public and private sectors and throughout the lifecyle of an event like Windy City’s category three storm.

Mark Howard is the Software Development Manager for the Notification Solutions and Services (NSS) division of PlantCML®, an EADS North America company. He is directly responsible for the advancement of the organization’s new “Instant Information™” communications platform, available in late 2010. As a 25+ year veteran in technology, Howard has earned several patents for his innovations in medical software. He holds a degree in Accounting from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Howard can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Do you know how much downtime costs your company every year? Most companies are shocked when they find out. A study by Infonetics Research* found that medium businesses (101 – 1,000 employees) are losing an average of 1% of their annual revenue, or $867,000, to downtime, with an average of nearly 140 hours of downtime every year. In addition to the financial losses, downtime creates a number of other risks including lost productivity due to idle employees, loss of customer confidence, liability and fraud due to lost records and data, and safety concerns due to no surveillance or critical communications. So what is 1 hour of network downtime worth to your company?

Having a continuity of communications plan in place should minimize the risks of network downtime, and help organizations like yours focus on their core business. To be effective, it should meet some basic criteria:

  • Provide cost effective broadband access for multiple applications
  • Provide near 100% uptime per remote locations
  • Establish an always on back up network that is 100% diverse from the terrestrial network
  • Keep communications running with constant access to data, video, voice and radio, even when local network services are down
  • Provide a solution that is easy to manage, deploy and operate on an ongoing basis

To keep operations running in the event of a telecommunications disruption satellite has proven to be an ideal solution that provides continuity of communications and ensures critical applications stay online. With today’s latest technology, companies can seamlessly and cost-effectively integrate satellite into hybrid networks and combine it with common carrier technologies (DSL, cable, T-1, fixed wireless etc.). The network can be configured to support varying requirements and support different applications beyond network backup. Organizations benefit from having a highly reliable high availability network that ensures telephone and critical data applications always stay online. Overall, a satellite continuity solution provides the following benefits:

  • Makes communications across locations easy
  • Enables applications to perform optimally
  • Minimizes lost revenue or additional costs from downtime
  • Protects internal & customer data
  • Ensures operations during short or longer incidents

With Spacenet, a leading provider of wireline and wireless networks, organizations now have more options for cost-effective and reliable network backup via satellite. It recently introduced the new Prysm Pro network appliance which enables seamless network backup between wireline and wireless networks.

As an example, Regis Corporation, the beauty industr's global leader in beauty salons, hair restoration centers and cosmetology education, selected Spacenet’s Prysm Pro to be used at over 7,000 nationwide locations to support automatic hybrid switching between its wireline and wireless technologies for network backup. In addition, it is simultaneously leveraging Prysm Pro for integrated WiFi hotspot services for customers, integrated Analog Telephone Adapter (ATA) for VoIP functionality, and POS hardware for its retail applications.

Spacenet also offers transportable satellite communications providing the ability to deploy quickly to an emergency site and communicate effectively.

As an example, a large independently owned food retailer needed a reliable communications network to support its emergency response initiatives. The ultimate objective was to provide disaster relief in emergency situations including access to critical supplies such as medicine and food. The customer deployed Spacenet’s high performance satellite network in support of disaster-relief efforts during hurricanes Dolly and Ike. The transportable satellite communications solution enabled the retailer to support critical communications including high-speed broadband data during the hurricane relief efforts. The system worked extremely well and enabled data communications to be up and running within minutes.

Overall, satellite services can play a critical component in helping a company maintain communications in any situation. The right solution will enable your company to focus on its mission and avoid the risks of network downtime.

For more information, contact Spacenet at 866.480.2263 or visit www.spacenet.com/drj.

About Spacenet®
Spacenet is a leading provider of broadband network solutions for US based business, industrial and government customers. We offer a complete product and services portfolio for applications ranging from primary communications for corporate applications and secure data transfer, to hot stand-by solutions for continuity of operations and network backup, or field deployable solutions for disaster recovery and emergency management. For more information visit www.spacenet.com.

*Source: Medium Businesses Lose $867,000 a Year to Network Downtime, Infonetics Resarch, 2006


Commercial Weather Company vs. National Weather Service


Recently, we were asked by a regular contributor of Disaster Recovery Journal why a company would use a commercial weather company versus just using storm warnings from the National Weather Service. It certainly is a valid question that many readers may ask because the answer may not be intuitive.

The answer in a nutshell is this. The National Weather Service is focused on gathering basic meteorological data and using it to issue broad forecasts to the public as a whole. Commercial weather companies work with the same data to provide targeted forecasts for specific clients, taking into account their particular needs and exact locations.

The Background

The National Weather Service provides most of the meteorological infrastructure (weather balloons, hurricane reconnaissance aircraft, radars, weather stations, to cite just a few examples) in the United States. While the private sector does make a significant contribution to that infrastructure (e.g., lightning detection networks), it is accurate to say that it would be nearly impossible to make quality weather forecasts and storm warnings without the data from the National Weather Service.

However, what happens to that raw data varies considerably depending on its intended use.

The National Weather Service

The mission of the U.S. National Weather Service is to protect the lives and property of the public-at-large for every square mile of the United States and its territories. So, they (rightly) have to give the same level of attention to a violent thunderstorm in a remote area of desert in Arizona as they would to a storm in Phoenix because one never knows whether a mobile home or passing motorist could be harmed by that thunderstorm.

While this is exactly what we as citizens expect from our government, it is not an optimal situation for businesses since their operational requirements can vary a great deal from those of the average person.

What a Commercial Weather Company Can Provide

The services provided by a commercial weather company are much more focused and specific. For example,
WeatherData Services, Inc., an AccuWeather company, takes the NWS data stream, combines it with private sector, state government, and corporate meteorological data and processes it in a way that optimizes our meteorologists’ decision-making and allows them to apply it to a specific site.

For a particular business, site-specificity is a valuable point of differentiation.  It enables them to continue to operate normally unless there is a specific threat to their exact location. “False alarm” costs plummet.

This approach improves both the credibility of and the economic value of a storm warning service
through the minimization of false alarms while improving safety when a genuine threat exists.

These benefits are not theoretical.

February 5, 2008: Caterpillar, Inc. factory, Oxford, Mississippi

WeatherData tornado warning issued 22 minutes prior to the arrival of the tornado. Plant destroyed. Government warning? Yes, four minutes after tornado struck plant.

August 16, 2008: Three Rivers, New Mexico, Union Pacific Railroad

WeatherData warning issued for flash flooding. Trains were halted and washouts were found. Government warning for area? None.

February 19, 2009: Thomasville, Georgia, Caterpillar Plant

WeatherData issued a tornado warning at 12:45 a.m. A tornado passed through the area at 1:05 a.m. causing significant damage. Government tornado warning issued at 12:56 a.m., giving 11 minutes less time for sheltering.

March 8, 2009: General Motors plant, Bedford, Indiana.

WeatherData issued tornado warning for the plant at 3:26 p.m. Tornado crossed over the plant at 3:45 p.m. Government warning? Yes, 3:37 p.m., 11 minutes after WeatherData’s.

bigvalley.jpgAugust 1, 2009: Camrose, Canada, Big Blue Valley Jamboree

WeatherData issued a 60 mph wind warning for Navistar in nearby Edmonton 32 minutes before the winds arrived. Government warning issued five minutes before winds struck. Stage collapsed as warning was being announced. One killed and 75 injured.

When combined with the savings through the avoidance of shutdowns due to unnecessary false alarms, the business case for this type of weather risk mitigation is compelling.

Here’s one thing to watch for. There are some commercial weather companies that merely repackage the National Weather Service public warnings into a different format. The issue with that approach is that it does not allow the warnings to be tailored to specific storm criteria (aircraft need to be moved into hangers to protect them from ½” hail, the NWS warns at 1” in many parts of the country) or exact locations. When shopping for a commercial warning service, we suggest you ask them to cite several specific warnings issued for criterion that differ from the NWS and for areas that were not covered by NWS warnings.

This “due diligence” will allow you to insure that you are getting what you believe you are paying for. After all, having the most accurate and specific weather warnings can be a matter of life and death for your patrons, your staff and even your business.

mike-smith.jpg Michael R. Smith, CEO of WeatherData®, is a certified consulting meteorologist and Fellow of the American Meteorological Society. He is the author of “Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather” to be published by Greenleaf May 1.