Wireless carriers are marshalling their forces at a series of mostly undisclosed locations in the mid-Atlantic as Hurricane Earl works its way up the East Coast. They’re on standby with trucks, mobile cell towers, generators, fuel and portable switching equipment staged to go anywhere the storm may take out service.
So far, however, it’s mostly been an exercise. Earl is coming close to the United States, but midday forecasts on Sept. 3 indicated the steadily weakening hurricane wouldn’t make landfall until it gets to the Canadian Maritime Provinces.
While there will be some damage to locations in the United States, primarily to the eastern end of Long Island, to Cape Cod and to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, for the most part the huge population centers of the United States have dodged the bullet with Earl. But this doesn’t mean that the efforts of the carriers were a waste. Earl could just have easily jogged a little farther west, and then we’d have seen a trail of destruction from Philadelphia to Boston. With the lessons of Hurricane Katrina fresh in their minds, the carriers needed to be ready.
Starting earlier this week, the major carriers moved their emergency equipment into position and set their employees up to prepare for the worst. In the words of a Verizon Wireless spokesperson, “We’re taking a belt and suspenders approach. We have tested and topped off generators with fuel, we have lined up resources to address storm-related damage quickly, and we are prepared to use portable generators which are available, if needed, for cells and switches.”
But, of course, Verizon Wireless and the other carriers are doing a lot more than that. Verizon has been installing permanent generators at as many of its cell sites and switching centers as it can, reducing the need for portable and mobile generating capacity, although the company has maintained those items as well to provide backup in case the permanent units fail.
T-Mobile, which attempts to place permanent generators at every site, is also staging back-up capability and manning its emergency operating centers in every major city on the East Coast, and it has set up redundant and backup traffic management operations at its network operations centers. The company has staged a mass of mobile cell units, generators and mobile command centers, so that it can provide support anywhere along the East Coast. The company is also mobilizing a fleet of mobile microwave relay towers to provide backhaul if terrestrial communications are disrupted.
Enterprises Should Make Their Own Emergency Plans
Sprint Nextel, meanwhile, has moved the Sprint Emergency Response Team’s fleet of mobile cell sites, including what the company calls SatCOLTs (for Satellite Cell on Light Truck) to provide communications in hard-hit areas. Those assets were moved from Orlando to Sprint’s facility in Sterling, Va., in the Washington suburbs.
While it’s unlikely that these assets will be needed, it’s clear that the wireless carriers are taking this and other real and impending disasters seriously. In the last decade, a series of hurricanes and other disasters have clearly demonstrated the critical nature of wireless communications. In addition, the massive tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, in which only one carrier, T-Mobile, was able to keep its network intact, has convinced the wireless industry to make sure that their networks are able to survive nearly anything.
But just because wireless carriers will be able to keep their networks up and running doesn’t mean that you don’t have to make sure you keep your business up and running as well. First of all, in a real emergency, the chances are good that you won’t be able to use your mobile device for anything other than sending SMS text messages. Emergency workers and first responders have priority codes that let them have first access to voice services on all wireless networks. This means that your call probably won’t go through.
But even if you can make a call, you should avoid doing so. Whatever wireless bandwidth is available needs to be preserved for true emergencies, and the normal operations of your business don’t count as emergencies. Instead, you need to be making other plans, including making sure your business continuity plan is in place and operating. Other companies have done this for past hurricanes, and the critical importance of having a good, workable plan in place is hard to overstate.
Meanwhile, it’s also important that you make sure your employees are aware of the proper steps to take. This means passing along the emergency preparation recommendations being provided by public safety agencies as well as by the wireless carriers. Briefly, your employees need to make sure they’ve charged their phones, that they have a portable radio and flashlights with plenty of batteries, and emergency supplies of food and water for several days. You’ve seen these lists plenty of other places.
But what’s really critical is that the wireless services are making their plans, and have been making preparations for years to make sure that communications are available. They don’t ever want to leave their customers and their communities without wireless access when the worst happens, and it seems that they’re making very good progress in doing that.