Howard County, Md.—I’m standing in a compound surrounded by enough mechanized equipment that it looked like a military operation preparing for battle. To be more exact, it was a compound occupied by what might seem like a herd of farm animals.
In front of me, parked next to a huge red tractor-trailer was a COW, next to that, a COLT. Parked behind them was a GOAT. Elsewhere, there were hastily erected tents with temporary workspaces, and then an airtight tent supplied with HAZMAT suits and a decontamination station.
Placed near the decontamination station I saw radiation detectors, chemical agent detectors and other devices. Next to that was oxygen breathing apparatus similar to, but much newer than, what I’d trained on in the Navy.
This was just a tiny portion of the arsenal that Verizon Wireless was preparing so the company could do battle against the forces of nature. Perhaps there would have been more in this carefully concealed compound, but the company was already battling massive flooding in the Midwest and south.
Tom Serio, an executive on Verizon’s business continuity team, had been telling me what happens when the company prepares to respond to natural disasters. The plan is to locate a disaster response team just outside the area that will be directly impacted by whatever’s coming and then rush in immediately. Serio recalled Verizon’s response to Superstorm Sandy in late October 2012. “We got there before the first responders,” he said.
Back then, the company’s emergency response teams arrived in towns in New York and New Jersey, picking their way through the debris-filled streets as they filed in, Serio said. This convoy included a GOAT (generator on a truck), a COLT (cell on light truck) and then trailers designed to serve as command centers for local authorities.
Following along would be stand-alone charging stations and a tractor-trailer filled with cubicles and computers and even more charging stations so that storm victims could reach their families and perhaps get help to recover.
Meanwhile, other mobile generators and COWs appeared in communities providing communications to the stricken area. I asked Serio how much all of this cost to use. “Nothing,” he said. “We do all of this at no charge to the community.” It was, he explained, a way of giving back.
Of course, Verizon Wireless isn’t alone in supporting its customers during a major disaster. Other carriers also provide mobile wireless equipment to offer access during an emergency. T-Mobile, for example, gained recognition for its willingness to allow any phone compatible with its network to make calls from the affected area, regardless of whether the owner was a customer. During Hurricane Katrina, Verizon did the same for Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) phones.
Wireless Carriers Corral COWs, GOATs to Prepare for Natural Disasters
While those mobile cell sites and generators are incredibly useful when communications infrastructure is damaged or destroyed, most of the time, the cell sites survive, but the power is out. For this reason, more than 90 percent of Verizon’s cell sites have backup generators.
The other sites have backup battery power and the company rolls in some of those mobile generators if the power is out longer than that. The result is that communities are provided with communications, a service that is essential for public safety, search and rescue as well as to support recovery.
But you need more than just cell phones to keep your business running. For this reason, Verizon and other carriers will help companies prepare in advance for disasters. This may mean advice on preparing to restore your business from another location or how to restore phone service quickly. The company will send disaster planning specialists to customers to help with the preparation and to make arrangements for recovery when it’s needed.
The company will also make equipment available to help businesses get back in operation, such as wireless routers that connect the LTE network to customer data networks to maintain Internet connectivity.
These wireless routers can be configured to support equipment such as point-of-sale devices and credit card readers so that businesses can keep operating after the disaster. This can be critical when people need to buy supplies or tools for recovery.
Some of these companies, including Verizon, go the extra mile. Serio said that one of the first things that the company does is start handing out phones to anyone in the disaster area who needs one. “When people are evacuated, they take their money and their pets” he said. “They don’t always think about their phones.”
And even if they do think about their phones, they frequently don’t think about their chargers, which is the reason for those charging stations. Eventually, Verizon hopes that people return their loaner phones, but during the time that they’re needed, disaster victims—whether individuals or companies—are welcome to use the phones until they are back on their feet.
It’s easy to argue that Verizon Wireless is doing what they do in disasters because they’re required to, but I think it’s more than that. During the time I wandered through Verizon’s compound, what I found was a sincere desire to provide help in as complete a way as possible. When a community has been ravaged by a national disaster, just knowing that somebody is working to reconnect you to the outside world can bring some measure of relief.