Modernizing Critical Communication Infrastructure: How Cities Can Better Respond to Natural Disasters

Over the past decade, hurricanes, and tropical storms have devastated the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. Hurricanes of 2012, 2014 and 2015 brought severe flooding, property damage, as well as power outages. And, in 2016, Hurricanes Hermine and Matthew repeatedly wreaked havoc on Florida’s Eastern seaboard, driving home the long-known fact that critical communications infrastructure is susceptible to damage from hurricane-force winds and rain.

When Hurricane Harvey swept through Texas in August 2017, evacuees in Houston had to dodge fast-rising waters, many were trapped in high-rise buildings, and some had to wade through flooded streets to safety. The scale of this catastrophe was only offset by the revelation that a major metropolitan area like this one was not prepared for a disaster of this magnitude. Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2019 are just the latest reminders of how often these extreme weather events are occurring, and how unprepared most cities likely are.

But as each event recedes into the past, it is critical to learn from these large-scale disasters and the subsequent recovery and follow-up. How can public communication networks be made more effective? How can city officials ensure that the public always has access to critical information? And how can cities better secure their critical communications infrastructure?

During natural disasters, delivering massive amounts of information quickly and accurately is essential. In the days and weeks immediately following any disaster, citizens need access to essential information. Current disaster response systems and networks built to address local disasters, such as flooded roads or house fires, or 911 calls, often can’t handle large-scale emergencies like category 5 hurricanes.

In these instances, disruptions to public safety and emergency communication systems could create situations where certain crisis-response operations would no longer be possible or at least the critical aspects of those operations would not be viable. Damage from hurricanes and powerful storms can cause critical communication networks to fall apart completely, leaving some communities cut off from the rest of the world. And a combination of these factors—impairment of communications and the resultant inability to communicate—can cause issues such as food, water, and medical needs to be overlooked, putting millions of people at risk.

By default, if there is a hurricane, wireless systems won’t be able to keep up with the demand for voice and data. When the weather forces these networks to degrade, the services are often unable to bridge the network connectivity gap. And in an era when critical communications networks have become more dependent on fiber optic cabling, the physical environment becomes incredibly challenging for critical communication networks to thrive.

While several factors may impact the performance of our communications infrastructure, these are the issues that could arise in the event of a natural disaster.

  1. Non-functioning 911 emergency communication
  2. Network blackout after a hurricane hits
  3. Emergency response systems not working properly
  4. Distribution of most important messages not being delivered effectively
  5.  Emergencies increasing in populations prone to flooding

The Promise of 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT)

As our cities continue to grow, increased reliance on intelligent infrastructure is required. And 5G technology promises to provide cities with a new and improved information network, designed to handle large-scale disasters and emergency response. Despite some early misgivings¹, this new network could provide a platform that enables city officials to share information and initiate interagency communication in ways they never could before. This, in turn, will improve the well-being of emergency responders, citizens, and entire communities.

In the not too distant future, emergency and disaster response will be significantly improved thanks to the increased access to the Internet of Things (IoT) that will streamline logistical operations and accelerate the delivery of critical emergency services. Cloud platforms now being developed will support rapid response to natural disasters and enable the engagement of broader communities in the sharing of needed information.

The Internet of Things (IoT), which consists of a network of connected devices and components such as sensors and cameras will increase the amount of data collected about a city. When urban areas are covered with sensors, the data collected will enable better preparedness strategies that can prefigure natural disasters. These sensors, which monitor the temperature, air quality, traffic, and temperature trends, can also be programmed to alert emergency response teams during natural disasters. Cities will be able to significantly counteract the impact of natural disasters through heeding early warning signs and planning evacuations²

5G and IoT Come With Challenges

Strengthening the resiliency of communications infrastructure is an essential part of building more disaster-ready cities. And as the world moves to 5G, and deeper development of the Internet of Things (IoT), we need to prevent vulnerabilities. Because despite the best intentions of network operators bad stuff happens - even with five-nines reliability requirements -  if the network gets hit by a natural disaster’³.

One area of concern is that this new infrastructure will be built around a set of standards that are under constant revision. As time passes, these standards will become more mature. But the threat of extreme weather is imminent and as such cities must - sooner rather than later - layout the considerations which will guide their investments.

In our view, these considerations should include:

  1. Timely, Accurate Data for Better Scenario Planning - The issue of resilience requires that our urban design networks include understanding what is going to happen and who is going to be affected. Greater sustainability is possible if the information provided to planners and designers is complete and up-to-date.
  2. Improved weather forecasting tools - Weather forecasting and climate change projections, as well as the proper understanding of the specific hazards that reside in a city, are becoming more important. The more factors that are taken into account in the planning phase, the greater the chance of resilience.
  3. Wireless Network Infrastructure built to Last - To make sure that all critical communications networks are secure and uninterrupted during extreme weather, cities must ensure that any new broadband infrastructure being built must be able to withstand adverse weather conditions.

Infrasite - a Florida based company -  has developed a patented solution that enables cities to secure their critical communications infrastructure underground. The solution protects critical equipment from the twin issues of wind and water. And can also accommodate large data storage and analytics systems that provide reliable geospatial intelligence during natural disasters and emergencies. Learn more.