Irene takes out cell towers, disrupts communications

An interview I did with ComputerWorld that is posted at



Irene takes out cell towers, disrupts communications

Storm affects 1,400 cell sites, FCC reports

By Matt Hamblen
August 29, 2011 12:12 PM ET
Computerworld – Communications
networks took a hit from Hurricane Irene, as 1,400 cell towers and cell sites were damaged or disrupted — mainly in Virginia, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina, the Federal Communications Commission said Monday. Continue reading Irene takes out cell towers, disrupts communications

Hurricanes Ike and Irene … what’s up with the “I” storms?

Hurricane Isabel tore up my dock.  Hurricane Ike led us on a chase across the Gulf coast.  Now Hurricane Irene is doing the same up the East coast.  These crazy “I” storms.

I trust the professionals at the National Hurricane Center.  While I do look at the model predictions and make my guesses, it is just me gaming the system.  I don’t know what the models represent or which ones are more accurate.  So I just rely on the NHC predictions.  That said, Emergency Management needs to be prepared for these storms even if they’re not in the path.  It’s a sad no-win situation for most EMs.  If they prepared and it doesn’t hit, they’re tagged for wasting money.  If they don’t prepare and it does hit; they’re tagged as incompetent.  The sweet spot in the middle is very small.

Attached is a slide deck that I use in class to expose students to the changing path of Hurricane Ike.  Nothing beats real life examples.

Hurr Ike Track

Skip the annex, just be inclusive and flexible

I’m reading an article Children and disaster planning: The National Commission on Children and Disaster’s finding and recommendations by Emily Cathryn Cornette and Angelique Pui-Ka So in the Journal of Emergency Management (Vol 9, No 2, March/April 2011).  From the article:

The [National Commission on Children and Disasters] recommends that children should be categorized independently of at-risk populations because grouping them with other special needs populations leads to a lack of concentration on, and the eventually marginalization of, children’s needs.  The Commission feared that placing children in the all-inclusive “special needs” category would also encourage disaster planners to merely push children into the appendix or annexes of current plans instead of incorporating children’s needs into the body of the plans themselves.

Advocates that represent — or at least claim to represent — segments of the population want more specific attention to their cause.  The natural turn was to assume the disaster plans were for the mainstream population and this special interest group had special needs not addressed in the plan.  Appendices were added to the end of the plan to handle these “special” situation.  Advocates keep pushing for more special appendices which creates unwieldy plans with many very strict paths.  At times, it feels like the advocate is telling the EM “don’t worry, we’ll kick you in the seat of your pants if you’re wrong” and less like a meaningful partnership to help all.

When will the entire emergency management community and all special interest advocates recognize that we’re all in a segment of the population that needs special attention?  Nearly everyone in the population could fit in at least one the categories of children, elderly, disabled (visibly or not), economically depressed, under-insured, socially isolated, dependant on some form of technology, or just basically ill-equipped to response to and recover from a disaster. Continue reading Skip the annex, just be inclusive and flexible

Fox News Interview, March 18, 2011

I was interviewed by Garrett Tenney of Fox News for a story about cell phone use in disasters.  The story was published on March 18, 2010 at  It is reprinted here.

Memorizing Cell Phone Numbers Could Save You in Times of Crisis

By Garrett Tenney
Published March 18, 2011 |

Many Americans feel naked or lost without their cell phones. 

But in times of crisis those very devices — instead of connecting people — can sometimes lead to collapses in communications.

One reason: who memorizes cell phones numbers anymore? 

A week after Japan’s 8.9 magnitude earthquake, there are still more than 10,000 people unaccounted for. 

Philippe Stoll, a spokesman for the International Red Cross, told the BBC earlier this week that people are still alive, but can’t tell anyone because cell phones that were not swept away by flooding waters quickly ran out of power. 

“I don’t know how many of the phone numbers saved on your mobile phone you know by heart,” Stoll said. “How do you reach someone whose number you have in the mobile you lost?”

In tech-savvy Japan, cell phones are widely used by young and old, as opposed to the U.S., where they are predominantly utilized by just the younger generation, said Ken Wisnefski, founder and CEO of 

“In Japan, even the older generation was reliant on technology, for some time, so the impact of this crisis is more far reaching because a large part of the population relied so heavily on that technology,” said Wisnefski. 

A study released earlier this month by Research and Markets, the world’s largest market research firm, revealed that of Japan’s population of roughly 127 million, 117 million are mobile subscribers and 90 percent of those users have access to a high speed 3G network. 

Communication in and out of Japan has begun to improve, and some wireless carriers, such as Verizon Wireless, Sprint and Comcast have been offering free calling to Japan from the U.S. 

But, in some of the hardest hit areas, communication with the outside world and emergency responders is still difficult. 

Keith Robertory, manager of disaster services technology with the American Red Cross, said this is a reminder to everyone to be prepared in the event of a disaster. 

He said people can take these few, simple steps to help improve communication and get you on the path of personal recovery:

–Save all your contacts on your home computer, update them every few months, and print a hardcopy of your contacts to keep in your car in case of an emergency. 

–Write down the toll-free numbers for your banks and utility companies. In the event of a disaster, this will allow you to turn off your utilities, reprint credit cards, and temporarily change your address. 

–Designate a friend or family member who lives outside your area to be your family’s emergency contact. In emergency situations, long-distance calls have a better chance of getting through jammed phone lines because they only require one connection to get through, while local calls require two connections. 

–If you are in a disaster area, and aren’t able to get a hold of family or friends on your phone, change your voicemail to say the current time, your location, and that you are safe. This will allow anyone trying to reach you to know you’re alive and where rescuers can find you. 

Robertory said communication in crisis situations is vital for families and communities. Although preparation is a personal decision, families should make plans to handle disasters, he said.

Safety 3rd

My recent trip to Cuba hammered home the concept of “safety third”. I stole the concept from Mike Rowe. Basically, it means that there is a certain amount of risk that someone needs to accept to get a job done. If everything were truly safety first, nothing would get done. Take a look at his blog entry at the following link.

Mike explains himself even more in the following TED talks video.

I bring this up because I’ve got a whole slate of photos for a blog post called “Cuban Safety 3rd” which will be coming soon.

Disaster Technology and traditional IT

I was recently asked just how handling technology in a disaster differs from traditional IT.



My normal elevator speech is simply that traditional corporate IT lives a life in maintenance mode.  There are many meetings to define a custom solution for a client, long ramp up periods to bring a configuration to life, the majority of the life-cycle spent keeping it running to the golden mark of 99.999% uptime, and then more meetings for the sunset.  Disaster technology lives life with rapid deployment, setup and speed to scale.  A T-0, we’re told where to be.  We’re on site one day later and setting up.  No meetings.  No change control boards.  No debating what color wire to use.  The site is run for a few weeks, maybe a month.  Then it is all torn down, packed up and sent back to a warehouse.  I add that a disaster technology unit can’t do what a traditional coporate IT unit does either.  The perfect relationship is where they work together: one is the anchor that keeps the back office functioning; the other is the sail to move with the changing wind; and they both share a compass to set a unified direction. Continue reading Disaster Technology and traditional IT

The Galaxy Tab and use in disasters

Samsung Galaxy Tab being heldThe Galaxy Tab has been in my hands for the past few weeks.  It is a tablet that uses the Android O/S and is about half the size of an iPad.  Connectivity for the one I’m using is through a built-in Verizon cellular chip.

My team and I were discussing the Galaxy.  The best summary we could find is that it is a great device if you can find the problem it solves.  My team and I are all equipped with some form of a Blackberry device, Dell laptop and cellular broadband.  So the question is where would this fit in our tool box?

Continue reading The Galaxy Tab and use in disasters

It’s all about usability

Get it all working together.

I’m regularly telling people to stop looking at smart phones as a device that makes phone calls plus other stuff, and instead look at it as a hand held data device.  There was an RFI/RFP a few years ago for a vehicle-based system that could track location, give directions and send messages.  Nearly all the respondents came back with multipart systems… this part does this, that part does that.  Today, the answer is simply to use a smart phone.  Continue reading It’s all about usability

Holiday mailing lists = disaster communications plan

I try to remind people every year that dusting off and updating the holiday mailing list is a good time to update their disaster communication’s plan.  Include on the list the names and toll free numbers for banks, insurance, loans, and utilities.  Don’t include the account numbers as you will probably know enough about your account that they can find the details for you.  These are recommended because if your house is burned down or swept away in floods, you’re still paying for the utilities until you close the account — even if the home is not there anymore.

Once you’ve updated all the information, print out a list of all your contacts and put a copy in each car plus one at home. 

I find the car’s trunk a good storage place for this type of information because I’m one of those that always has my car nearby.  Urban commuters that use mass transit should consider using a smaller, tighter font for a one pager that can be kept in whatever they carry.  People walk into my office regularly saying their phone didn’t charge overnight.  Once your phone battery is dead, any information stored there is useless.