California Firestorms Reveal Wireless Network Fragility in Emergencies

NEWS ANALYSIS: Wireless networks in the U.S. have little redundancy or interoperability, which means they can fail when they are needed the most, in natural disasters such as the firestorms in Northern California.

Northern California Fires

The fires that ripped through California’s wine country moved with deadly speed, trapping people in their houses and in their neighborhoods. In many cases, the only warning victims received was if they happened to see the flames in the distance.

Other residents were able to escape the wind-driven flames if they were able to receive phone calls from neighbors, family or friends.

Emergency service authorities in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties sent out warnings and evacuation orders as quickly as possible. They also sent police and fire units into threatened neighborhoods with sirens blaring and emergency lights flashing to alert residents to the danger.

Unfortunately, many people out of hearing of those sirens never received evacuation orders or phone calls because the cellular networks in the devastated areas were already out of commission.

Local authorities say that the speed of the fires, coupled with the lack of warnings contributed to the loss of 28 people who are reported to have died as of this writing. Authorities also believe that some of the hundreds of people reported missing have died, but the scale of the destruction, the remoteness of some of the burned areas along with cell communications service outages means there is often no way of ascertaining who is actually missing.

While there’s likely nothing that could be done to prevent the fires that are still burning in the region, the fragile communications infrastructure certainly contributed to the loss of life.

Worse, the same communications infrastructure that supports cellular service also supports public safety communications in many communities. This means that local authorities and community groups are relying on ham radio operators to provide critical communications. Currently, the Sacramento Bee is reporting that ham operators are providing the only communications with hospitals in some areas.

Unfortunately, this problem with a fragile wireless infrastructure isn’t confined to Northern California. It’s evident in other areas where disasters have taken place, such as when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in late September. There, two-thirds of the cell sites are still out.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The communications infrastructure in the U.S. can be made more resilient, either through forward-thinking design or through policies that create redundancy in the networks.

For example, when the slow moving Hurricane Harvey inundated the Houston metropolitan area with more than 50 inches of rain, but only 5 percent of Houston’s cell sites went out, according to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai.

During a speech at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. on Oct. 10, Pai said that the difference was that cellular operators in Houston had replaced most of their copper infrastructure with fiber, which was much less susceptible to damage from flooding.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...