When a major disaster hits, we are used to hearing about ordinary citizens springing into action to rescue people stranded on rooftops of sunken houses, cleaning up, providing food and shelter and eventually rebuilding homes.
But what about communications? Hurricanes, wild fires, earthquakes and floods also take a tremendous toll on the communications infrastructure (comm-Infra), without which it is very difficult for a community to recover. After the terrorist attacks in 2001, citizens from across the nation got into their trucks of their own volition and hauled communications equipment, such as cells on wheels to New York, to bridge the gap before systems are restored.
There was a proposal for the creation of a national guard-style, credentialed cadre of volunteers that would come into a community and help after a disaster to help bring back the telecommunications infrastructure,” Chris Hillis, Information Technology Disaster Resource Center (ITDRC) chairman of the board, told AGL eDigest. “The concept, then known as National Emergency Technology Guard (NetGuard), became part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 but never got any traction.”
Seven years after 9/11, the ITDRC, was formed as a non-profit to coordinate and support individuals that want to step up and restore communications when a community suffers a calamity. And, in June 2015, the ITDRC along with Cisco Systems, Google, Intel, Microsoft and others agreed to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to complement ongoing disaster response and coordinate efforts.
Since it began 10 years ago, ITDRC has grown from a handful of people to more than 1,000 volunteers, who have installed temporary networks, enabling internet connectivity, telephone and radio communications. Additional assistance, such as geographic information system (GIS) capacity, coding and data analytics, has also been delivered to people in need.
They are all volunteers. You won’t find a more dedicated group than these people who go into situations when most run away or watch it on TV. They jump on a plane and go right into it,” Hillis said.
In 2017, ITDRC logged 15 disaster responses, opened up 159 new connectivity sites and served 85 communities. The group assisted during the most devastating hurricane season on record. After Maria struck Puerto Rico, in particular, 47 volunteers worked 114 days, logging 8,352 hours and providing a million dollars’ worth of tech services.
“After Maria struck the island of Puerto Rico, there was no power and no communication. The fiber networks were trashed. Wireless connectivity was no better,” Hillis said. “ITDRC immediately dispatched volunteers. During the first three months after the hurricane, 50 volunteers from ITDRC established 80 connectivity sites to bring some communication back to much of the island, supporting people, first responders and the local government.” If you add in Hurricane Harvey, which struck south Texas, and Hurricane Irma, which hit south Florida, that number grows to 80 volunteers logging 80,000 hours.
Last year was also an especially deadly and destructive because of wildfires out West, and ITDRC received a letter of appreciation from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services for its “exceptional work” and “professionalism” during the recovery.
Through relationships with Ruckus Wireless, CISCO, Fortinet and DISH Network, ITDRC sets up temporary communications in temporary schools, recovery centers, pharmacies, hospitals and or shelters. HughesNet, for example, provided backhaul from emergency management, rescue squads and 911 call centers for Puerto Rico. CISCO added 200 power over Ethernet switches valued at $200,000.
“We want to work with organizations that want to use their resources for good,” Hillis said. “All products and services are donated. Industry is pretty good about giving us the equipment.”
Google has a team of 130 people who want to be deployed into disasters, which ITDRC takes under its umbrella, gives them plane tickets, and takes care of their housing and meals.
“We work very close with the satellite industry, including HughesNet and ViaSat. DISH Network has been a facilitator into that industry. They donate accounts to us so we can go out and reconnect pharmacies, hospitals or a facility in the mountains,” Hillis said.
The recovery time after a disaster lasts long after the cameras are packed up and the public’s attention moves on. A year later, ITDRC still has people on the ground in Puerto Rico and 60 active communication sites, as well as 10 sites in South Florida and 40 sites in South Texas.
In a lesser known disaster, the flood that hit southeastern Missouri in Carter County a year ago, the group is still helping the municipal government, which is in trailers. In fact, Joplin, Missouri, where a tornado struck in 2011, still receives help with its communications.
“Our commitment is to give [the disaster survivors] equipment with no return date,” Hillis said.
“We support a lot of communities long after the disaster. When a community loses thousands of buildings to a tornado, there are not enough contractors and materials to build it back very quickly. Sometimes it takes years just to settle insurance claims.”
The supply of disasters seems to be actually growing with California expecting another record wildfire season. The Napa/Yolo County fire has burned 86,000 acres at this writing and it is only 30 percent contained. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) recently said that the West is “sitting on a powder keg of fire risk.” And another hurricane season is kicking off.
“We could always do more” is the lament of any organization trying to do good, and it is usually followed by “if we only had more resources and volunteers.” One way that ITDRC is expanding its volunteer force is to develop deeper relationships with the wireless infrastructure industry.
“When a disaster occurs, some people give clothing, others give money and yet others get in the car and go there to offer up their talents,” Hillis said. “Volunteers give of their hard work and communications knowledge, but in return they receive a transformational experience.” To learn more about volunteer opportunities call 817.886.8550 or visit https://itdrc.org/index
J. Sharpe Smith
J. Sharpe Smith joined AGL in 2007 as contributing editor to the magazine and as editor of eDigest email newsletter. He has 29 years of experience writing about industrial communications, paging, cellular, small cells, DAS and towers. Previously, he worked for the Enterprise Wireless Alliance as editor of the Enterprise Wireless Magazine. Before that, he edited the Wireless Journal for CTIA and he began his wireless journalism career with Phillips Publishing, now Access Intelligence. Sharpe Smith may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.