Introduction to Communications

Communications Introduction

Communication is vital.  It is the passing of information from one person to another.  This information can be a thought, a request, a need … anything at all.

An interesting thought was put forth about communications in a historical show about the Dark Ages in Europe: after the plague and the Viking hordes, there were not enough people left living in Europe near each other to share ideas and spark creativity.  The Renaissance had to wait until the population rebounded to create a density of shared ideas.  Hence, the lack of communication held back the advancement of European civilization after the fall of Rome until the Renaissance.

If there was an after-action report on Europe in the Dark Ages, the blame would have been placed on poor communications.  I wonder when we’ll stop using this centuries old excuse for problems that occur during disasters.

Communicating ideas can take place in many ways.  It can be voice, data, images, sounds, video and any other form of medium that you can image.  Using all these methods can still be challenging when all infrastructure is at its best.  Think of all the people who everyday complain about dropped cellular calls, emails not getting  through, files too large to upload, and so on.

Disasters have a way of magnifying all cracks in technology, as well as socially, culturally, and economically.  Expecting the same level of pre-disaster services during the disaster or after is just not realistic.  The infrastructure is weakened, and the users’ demands are increasing.

When you are asked to provide communications during a disaster, you will not have the assets to bring everything back online at once.  Each communication medium will need to be prioritized and rank ordered.  There is one place where the PACE acronym will come in.  Using PACE while writing your preparedness plans will also help set expectations across all the users.  Solid expectation setting is key to being successful during a disaster as everyone will be on the same thought process in evaluating your work.


Keep it simple.  People will use what they use every day to make communications occur.  Training is critical.  Ask a law-enforcement officer how much weapons training they have, and how much radio training they have.  Then ask which one they use more.  A common response that I hear is no radio training but it is used every day.  That’s a problem.

Locations and Connection Methods

There are many different types of sites that will need connectivity.  Fundamentally, they are all going to be the same.  Each site will need connectivity external to the site, such as to the Internet.  Each site will need some way for users to use the technology inside the site, such as a computer or phone.  Then these need to be connected together; a network or antenna wire.

All these systems will require a few basics to get started: space and power.  Do you have the space to bring these systems into the site, set them up and operate?  Do you have the power to bring the equipment online?  Secondarily, is there infrastructure to support the people: food, water, sleep, toilets, etc.

The “last mile” connections are going to be the hardest to finish in a disaster.  The core of the major utilities may be functioning fine.  The power station is generating electricity and it is getting to the sub stations.  The natural gas lines are charged.  The telecommunications network is active.  Except for where you are.  Include in your plans how you will overcome these challenges.  It will likely be a combination of direct work with the utility companies to be on the priority restoration list, and rental companies that can provide the service on an emergency temporary basis.

Wired communications

A single voice line is the basic unit of the phone system.  To you, this is both a pair of wires coming into your home plus a phone number.  These are really two separate things.  The voice line is the dial tone to your home.  The phone number is how the phone company identifies your line.  Business lines commonly have different numbers of voice lines and phone numbers.

I have a phone system with just under 2,000 direct dial phone numbers but only capable of just under 200 concurrent external phone calls.  Why?  Because all 2,000 phone numbers won’t be in use at the same time.  It is a lot like a gym membership.  They don’t expect everyone to show up on the same day to use the same treadmill.  Some use it in the morning, some in the evenings, and some never.  Some of my users will only be calling others in the same phone system.  These never use an external voice line and stay completely within the system.

Data lines are all based on the simple single voice line.  A single voice line can carry 64 kbit/sec, although the 8 kbit/s overhead make the practical maximum only 56 kbit/s.  A T1 circuit is also called a DS-1 or PRI.  The name varies depending on the specific use and those in the industry will be very specific.  For our purposes here, they are lumped together.  A T1 circuit is a bundle of 24 voice lines.  The math is simply 64 kbit/sec x 24 lines = 1.5 Mbit/sec.  A T3 circuit is a larger bundle and has 672 lines, therefore 43 Mbit/sec.  It used to be that a T1 was the gold standard for a circuit into a facility.  In my experience, a T1 can support 100 active users at best.  We’re now planning in the direction to pull T3s into large sites.  The sad part is that my home broadband runs faster than 4 Mbit/sec – almost three times the speed of a T1.


Additional resources

Peer-to-peer, wireless network could help in disasters

An interview I did originally posted at,

Peer-to-peer, wireless network could help in disasters

LifeNet open-source software would link devices via Wi-Fi, professor says

Matt Hamblen
August 29, 2011 (Computerworld)

With a recent earthquake and devastation from Hurricane Irene, many cell phone users on the East Coast experienced clogged networks that made wireless calling difficult. Continue reading Peer-to-peer, wireless network could help in disasters

Red Cross comm team ready for disasters

An interview that I did and is posted originally at

Red Cross comm team ready for disasters

IT system’s design is based on experience from years of disaster experience, says Red Cross IT exec

By Matt Hamblen, Computerworld
August 29, 2011 01:34 PM ET
While most businesses back up data and records as potential disasters approach, the American Red Cross has a communications and information systems infrastructure built to bring key data into areas ravaged by storms like Hurricane Irene . Continue reading Red Cross comm team ready for disasters

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

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.

IAEM 2011 Conference Speaker Submittal

IAEM: The Stakes are High conference logoThe International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) conference in November 2011 has put out a call for speakers.  The deadline of February 25 is fast approaching.  I decided to pitch a 1 hour breakout session loosely based on the course I teach at GWU.  Below is what I sent in.  Let me know your thought and make suggestions. Continue reading IAEM 2011 Conference Speaker Submittal

Satellite 2011 Conference Interview

This interview is reposted from the Satellite 2011 Conference page.

An Inside Look with Keith Robertory, American Red Cross

Conference Chairman Scott Chase sat down with Keith Robertory, Disaster Services Technology Manager, American Red Cross, to discuss the relationship between government agencies and the satellite industry when a disaster strikes. You can hear more from Keith Robertory and other experts at Satellites to the Rescue on Tuesday, March 15

Scott Chase: In the event of an emergency situation of any type, how effective is coordination of government and industry satellite resources, and how does that all work?

Keith Robertory: Coordination of shared resources is going to be very important. Many organizations have satellite technology positioned as the emergency solution when terrestrial services do not work. If all these organizations pull out their satellite equipment during a disaster and try to use it, the limitations of shared bandwidth abruptly smack these organizations with reality. The satellite industry needs to work with its clients to better educate them on potential limitations. 

Offers of donated satellite systems and air time are welcome at any time. That said, the worst time to engage a response organization with an offer of new equipment, new technology, and limitations unknown to them is right after a disaster occurs. The priority of key decision makers will be the response effort. Effective government and industry coordination occurs long before the emergency situation ever arises.

SC: What applications do satellites bring to support the communications requirements of users in remote locations during and after the disaster?

KR: The American Red Cross satellite infrastructure has the IP packet as a common foundation. We are not trying to push different modes and protocols through the equipment. IP allows the core network to handle the information at a very basic level, reducing the number of conversions between the source and the destination. It can be data packets, voice or video, but it is all based on the basic IP packet. The trick to be successful in disasters is to make technology transparent. 

SC: What are the biggest changes you have seen in the use of satellite technology and equipment over the course of your own quarter-century in the high-tech arena?

KR: Satellite technology is becoming more and more commonplace. Imagine a couple decades ago telling someone that we’re going to send a radio signal to their car from tens of thousands of miles away. Small transceivers used to only exist in the realm of science fiction. It doesn’t seem that long ago that connectivity between computers was about as fast as you could read plain text. Now we are streaming HD video, video teleconferences, and entire site connectivity through a single satellite connection using equipment that is (relatively) easily shipped from site to site.

On the flip side, technology advances and shifts in philosophies are bringing previous “obsolete” concepts back to the mainstream. Many people consider cloud computing to be a new technology, but it isn’t. We used to call it mainframes and terminals. The current events in Egypt show that no matter how advanced the technology, technologists need to be ready to fall back to older methods to establish connectivity. Egypt is an example of how to communicate should a nationwide network be disrupted. Disaster technologists should be versed in many different tools.

SC: What would you say has been the biggest advance in satellite capability since you joined the American Red Cross nearly 15 years ago?

KR: Honestly, we have not made many substantial changes to the American Red Cross satellite system since it went live in 2000. Standing up a system of the size we have is a costly endeavor and major changes also cost more money. We’re in the maintenance mode of the IT life-cycle. We are going to keep the system running as long as possible because a poor economy is not the time to request a multi-million dollar upgrade that may not have a measureable direct impact on the mission to deliver disaster relief services to disaster survivors. 

Our system has grown to have two downlink stations and nearly 80 remotes in the field, including 12 satellite trucks. It is a completely internal system behind and protected by our corporate IT systems. The only thing we don’t own is the satellite itself. What has changed is how we use satellite capability and the philosophy behind technology selection. 

Consider that all the technology we have is a tool in a tool box. We are first and foremost a service delivery organization.  My unit’s objective is to establish connectivity in a disaster zone. We need to leverage everything in the most mission-sensible way to balance cost with service delivery. Technology that doesn’t enhance service delivery isn’t used.  The situation drives technology needs. As there is less and less local infrastructure, the selected tools shift to satellite-based technologies. 
Terrestrial technology, like cellular, is giving satellite a good run for its money. Cellular is getting faster, cheaper, and more resilient to disasters then it has been in the past. Satellite is also getting faster and cheaper. The decision point between where we can expect cellular to work and when to shift to satellite is in constant motion. Both are getting better but one will never replace the other for disaster work. Use the right tool for the right job. There is no single magic bullet idea.

SC: What can the global satellite industry do better to facilitate emergency response and humanitarian efforts at the scene of major disasters of any type?

KR: The satellite industry must reach out to humanitarian and other response organizations long before disaster occurs. It is challenging to fit a new connectivity solution into an existing network that is activity being used to respond to a catastrophe somewhere. And I say “catastrophe” because it seems to take the huge disaster to get lots of companies off the bench and in the game. Taking satellite technology to an organization responding to disaster is similar to telling a freighter that you’re going to change its propellers while it is navigating a horrendous storm in the North Atlantic.

Haiti was a time when this was successfully done, and that is an exception. Haiti was the largest response of the International Federation of the Red Cross. The technology that is normally sufficient for a disaster was quickly out-scaled and couldn’t keep up with demand. Luckily, the American Red Cross domestic response team’s experience with satellite was able to screen and facilitate the offers of satellite service on behalf of the international response team who could not shift attention off the response.

SC: In your role as supervisor of literally hundreds of volunteers, many of whom may have never seen, for example, a satellite phone, what is the one thing the satellite industry could do now to simplify emergency response?

KR: A larger diagram on the satellite phone to tell them to use it outside would be a good start. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Any device that is stored “for emergency use only” will not be successful in an emergency without a lot of training. In my experience, even that can be questionable. The best “in case of emergency” device is one that a user uses every day and is resilient to disasters. The American Red Cross actually uses fewer satellite phones then you probably think. Amateur radio plays a vital role in the first couple days of a disaster, and cellular is coming back online after that. Satellite phones are used in pocket areas where we have few other working options.

It is fair to say that all the technology deployed to an American Red Cross disaster response is received, set up, managed, troubleshot, packed up and shipped back by volunteers. I’m blessed with a cadre of high caliber volunteers who can use technology and speak human. We’re the high-tech in a human-touch organization. My technical volunteers in the field are the support system for the volunteers in the field that directly touch the clients. A key to our success is a step-by-step job aid for every action that needs to be done. These range from wiring a laptop to setting up a full VSAT. As long as a new volunteer is willing to be flexible and follow directions, we can put them to use in American Red Cross Disaster Services Technology with minimal upfront training.  Our more experienced volunteers can get more deployment and training opportunities.

The short answer comes back to simplifying the technology to be more reliable, set up quickly with less user intervention, and require less hands-on to keep it running.

Join Keith for Satellites to the Rescue: Industry and Government Partnership in Disaster Relief, 4:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. on Tuesday, March 15, Room 207A. Access to the session is included with your Full Conference registration.

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

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.