Communications in natural disasters? - The question remains, but is there an answer?
By Yossi Segal
We have just witnessed the devastating earthquake to hit Nepal on Sunday April 26th that took over 5,000 lives. We all know that in such disaster stricken areas the first 24-48 hours are crucial to saving lives and assessing the situation. We also know that as with Nepal all phone, cellular and internet infrastructures have been hit hard, leaving aid workers to scrabble around with hand written messages. The international Red Cross and leading companies like Google and Facebook try to provide tools that help connect people and rescue teams, however large-scale power outages and last-mile internet connectivity problems prevent all connectivity and connection among dispersed rescue teams, people, family members and aid workers. Communications becomes a vital means of life-saving efforts and critical decision making, without which no massive or significant rescues can take place. There are several communications infrastructures available today however the question is how do they perform in critical situations such as natural disasters and to what extend can we rely on them?
In a disaster stricken area such as the earthquake in Nepal, one of the biggest communications obstacles especially in urban environment such as Kathmandu, is rubble, crumbled buildings and densely populated areas that in communications terms is referred to as N-LOS (non- line of sight) areas. When buildings collapse, the high mountains of rubble obstruct any line of sight thus blocking almost any means of communications.
Another important communications aspect in disaster stricken areas is the need for a stable communications network. This allows for multiple people to communicate from multiple locations and sources. Rescue teams and local forces need to communicate with each other, with local HQ, call for additional backup units as well as warn people of dangers and aftershocks. The most common communication infrastructure that we have all became dependent on is the cellular or mobile infrastructure. Mobile infrastructure unfortunately is the first to collapse in times of disaster and immediately becomes unviable. Furthermore when people divert to cellular communication modes, with the constant power outages, they don't have the power to charge their batteries, making this mode of communication unreliable yet from another perspective.
There are many communication solutions out there spanning different technologies such as Hytera, Motorola, Thales and more. Most communications systems are designed to provide a point- to- point communications with voice capabilities only and will not overcome N-LOS scenarios.
TETRA, for instance, formerly known as (Trans-European Trunked Radio) is a mobile radio and two-way transceiver communication mode, also known by its common name as walki talkie. TETRA was specifically designed for public safety use. TETRA provides a limited point –to- point voice communications between two people only. Overcoming natural disaster events require full communications network to manage multiple dispatch units, rescue teams and search crews from both land and air. Such mass missions and tasks require a robust and scalable communications network capable of supporting all relevant crews and rescue teams, something that TETRA is not designed to do.
Today more than ever, real-time video has great impact and contribution to assessing situations and understand the scope of events within this turmoil and chaos environment. The ability to send live video from onsite locations is critical. COFDM communications technology enables video transfer and may even overcome some N-LOS challenges; however as with most communication systems, COFDM mostly provides a one-way point-to-point video only communications and is not designed to deliver a scalable communications network.
So the question remains – is stable, reliable communications network a lost case in disaster stricken situations? The answer of course is no. Today more and more organizations, governments and public safety offices are becoming aware of the following terms: Mission-Critical-Communications and MESH technology. These often deliver communications abilities by creating a private communication network, usually without the need for existing communications infrastructure.
There are a few MESH based communications solutions out there. MESH technology refers to a radio based private communications network where all units are connected to each other and could act as backup to other units in the network. This ensures connectivity even in extremely harsh conditions such as disaster stricken areas. MESH technology delivers HD video, data and voice in real-time and can receive and broadcast the information from and to multiple locations and sources. The network also finds the best route for transmitting all the information and operates regardless of any existing communications infrastructure.
With a high performance Ad-Hoc MESH technology communications solution, first responders, emergency services, crews and forces communicate as a unified workforce immediately upon arrival at scene. This makes the first 24-48 hours that are crucial to saving lives, much more effective with a powerful response rate and situation assessment.
Receiving HD video, data and VoIP from multiple sources, directly to a command mobile unit post, expands the scope of field, the available information to make critical decisions in real time and often dictates the success of rescue efforts and support for the people in the area.
We have seen the same challenges as in Nepal as well as during Super Storm Sunday and with each natural disaster, governments and organizations are becoming more aware of the need for a reliable communications infrastructure. While we cannot control mother-nature, we can certainly adapt and MESH technology does just that.