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Two Way and Critical Communications

Be Ready Before Disaster Strikes

The winter of 2013-2014 was one for the record books during which many parts of the U.S. and Canada were hammered by successive waves of wintry blasts – a weather phenomenon now popularly known as a polar vortex. Even those hardy northern communities normally accustomed to frigid winters received an inordinate share of extreme conditions.

Such conditions bring the expected fallout – impassable roads, downed trees, widespread power outages – leaving hundreds and thousands of people stranded, cold, and in the dark. For first-responders who provide emergency services to those affected by such conditions, the situation is challenging and often daunting.

People and businesses react differently to forecasts of impending adverse weather conditions. A small group invariably will discount the severity of the forecast. On the other hand, many will take the forecast to heart and start to prepare for the worst before it happens. This means stocking up on supplies and "battening down the hatches," a widely used nautical term that simply means to prepare for a difficult situation. As a consequence, many grocery and hardware stores experience a requisite "run" on essential food and supplies when a storm is approaching. Such reaction will take care of the short-term need.

But with weather patterns becoming harder to predict, should we be preparing for worst-case scenarios that involve abnormal or extreme conditions, and natural disasters? How do you prepare for an extended power outage that may last several days or several weeks? It's one thing for individuals and businesses to plan for a storm, but how can whole communications networks prepare?

Preparing for Disaster

Hurricanes, snow storms, and natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis have proven to be particularly hard on above ground level (AGL) network infrastructure that consists of towers, outdoor cabinets, poles, and cable lines. Although designed for outdoor use, these infrastructure components are highly exposed to the elements and are vulnerable to severe wind, rain, snow and sleet. So when a disaster hits and power transmission facilities and lines go down, the potential result is a disruption in local telephone and cable service, as well as damaged or destroyed wireless base station sites. As a result, people and businesses are left in the dark, and unable to communicate with emergency services or with family outside the affected area.

Getting basic power and communications services restored quickly after a disaster depends on the preparedness planning that must be conducted well in advance.

Restoring Critical Communications

Even before power can be restored, it is critical that wireless communications are enabled for first-responders to direct and execute the rescue, recovery, and restoration operations.

Consider the following checklist for critical communications disaster preparedness and recovery:

Backup Power Solutions

Most base station sites have batteries to back up the DC power equipment used to run the radio electronics. Batteries generally will last a few hours in the event of an AC power outage to the site. Periodic battery maintenance will ensure they will deliver power when it is needed. Many sites have a standby generator that will engage when the utility AC is lost. For those sites that do not have a permanently installed generator, they are often outfitted with an external plug into which a portable generator can be rolled and connected to provide needed AC power for running the site and recharging the batteries. However, if the road to the site is impassable due to downed trees and lines, then the site will eventually go off the air when the batteries deplete and the generator fuel tank runs dry. As a precaution against such occurrences, more sites are being equipped with solar panels as a means of deriving renewable energy. Whatever the alternatives, site power backup and restoration planning must be considered on a site-by-site basis.

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Mobile Tower Platforms

New mobile tower platforms on the market can enable temporary communications facilities in disaster or emergency situations. These platforms support a tower that can extend to more than 100 feet. The platforms can be towed with a heavy-duty truck and will support a variety of communications and power equipment installed in cabinets on the platform itself. Antennas and cables are mounted on the extendable tower that can then be erected to full height, with or without guy wires. For cellular applications, a cell site on wheels (COW) can be rolled into key locations where an existing cell site is out of service to provide voice calling and Internet access to individuals and businesses alike. For first-responders, a mobile tower platform with a VHF/UHF base station can serve as a command center to coordinate police, fire, emergency medical services (EMS), and local military operations for Public Safety, and rescue and recovery operations. Having fully equipped mobile tower platforms that have been tested and are ready-to-roll will save precious time and resources during emergency and disaster situations.

Interoperability

The ability for two-way radios to "talk" to each other even though they operate on various VHF and UHF Public Safety frequency bands is critically important during wide-scale emergencies. To be effective, law enforcement agencies, firefighting companies, EMS, and other public health and safety departments must be able to communicate and coordinate with each other. Radio over IP (RoIP) systems enable radios among disparate Public Safety frequencies to communicate with each other efficiently and effectively in emergency situations over a common radio system. Developing an integrated radio plan allows first-responder companies and departments in a given area to communicate with each other during critical situations.

Point-to-Multipoint (PMP) Communications

Base stations provide a single point of access for multiple mobile devices. Base stations operate on licensed and unlicensed frequency bands, depending on the application, whether in public or private networks or for Public Safety communications. When permanently installed base stations are no longer functioning due to damage at the site or loss of site power, then mobile or portable base stations can temporarily restore wireless service in the affected areas. One of the more significant technological advancements is the broadband wireless mesh network. Broadband wireless mesh networks have the added capability of enabling base stations on the network to communicate and link with each other to effectively transport multimedia (voice, Internet data, and video) signals. When any link in the mesh is broken, the network automatically reforms itself to redirect traffic over the remaining available, operating links. In this way, mesh networks maintain resilient, reliable communications.

Point-to-Point (PTP) Communications

PTP microwave radio systems are used to "haul" multimedia traffic from the edge or access part of the network "back" to the core of the network where the traffic can be switched and routed to the Internet, or to other wired or mobile devices. Wireless backhaul systems can operate over licensed or unlicensed frequency bands, and can be configured for line-of-sight (LOS) or non-line-of-sight (NLOS) applications, over short and long distances, and at throughput rates of up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps). A wireless backhaul system operating from a mobile tower platform will ensure that emergency operations in affected areas stay connected to network core switching sites and data centers. Knowing the geography of the area and the available operating frequencies will help planning for the right PTP radios, antennas, and tower heights needed.

Network Core and Data Center Operations

Public and private, and Public Safety networks cannot tolerate any downtime. Network core and data center operations include switching and routing functions and the handling of all data processing needs. These sites are supported with emergency backup power systems and redundant switching and routing equipment that are used to maintain critical communications. High-speed backhaul connections in and out of the network core and data center can be over copper cable, fiber optic cable, or PTP microwave links.

In the end, the survivability or restoration of a communications network in disaster situations is a function of the thoughtout anticipation of disaster scenarios and a scrupulously planned response for each.

To help you prepare for and handle emergency situations and disasters, TESSCO maintains an inventory of critical communications infrastructure equipment, including: licensed and unlicensed PMP, PTP and VHF/ UHF Public Safety radios; commercial and consumer two-way handsets and accessories; omnidirectional, directional, and parabolic antennas; copper and fiber cables; power systems and batteries; switches and routers; installation supplies; and mobile tower platforms. TESSCO also carries a wide variety of emergency supplies and equipment that can help individuals and businesses during adverse circumstances. To further assist you, we can assemble related, complementary products into complete kits so that everything you would need is conveniently included in one kit, ready for immediate use.

Disaster Preparedness

 

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