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.
But Pai also told the story of a woman on an Indian reservation who was found dead, with her cell phone in her hand, after dialing for help 38 times. The cell service in her area had failed.
Communications policy can also make a huge difference. One thing you’ll notice when you travel outside the U.S., for example, is that wireless devices all use the same protocols, the same standards and the run on the same frequencies.
This means that a cell phone user in Germany, for example, can make calls on any network in the country. European policy requires carriers to allow roaming on all of those networks, so if you’re using T-Mobile, you can also use Vodafone and O2, as long as your phone supports the required frequencies, which most do.
In the U.S., if you’re a T-Mobile customer, you’re using the same protocols as AT&T, but if you happened to be in AT&T’s network area, AT&T’s cell sites won’t accept your call. Likewise, if you’re a Sprint user you can’t use Verizon’s network, even though they share the same protocol.
What’s worse is that nearly every smartphone currently sold in the U.S. has the capability to use nearly any network in the country, but can’t because the carriers won’t allow it.
While it’s true that the carriers have the ability to set their cell sites to accept calls from any phone, this doesn’t always happen. Even when they do it’s not always immediate. This effectively means that without this redundancy you can find yourself without cell service, even in a heavily populated area.
Of course such service reliability would go a long way if the carriers made good decisions when building out their networks. This can mean not putting their switches in the basements of buildings where they could be flooded, which happened when New Orleans was swamped by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
It can also mean having microwave backup links for times when cables go out in a disaster. And of course it means having cell sites with backup power that can go for more than a few hours.
For your company, this redundancy requires planning so that you don’t find yourself depending one a form of communications that is vulnerable to a disaster. This can mean having a fiber communications link in addition to wireless. It can mean having the ability to use satellite communications. You can even incorporate a microwave or laser link between offices.
What’s most important is to do the planning, taking in likely natural and manmade events that can disrupt your critical business communications. While you can’t prevent the next wildfire, earthquake or hurricane, you can make sure you have the redundancy and resiliency to keep operating, and most of the time, that’s enough.