PACE and Interoperable Communications

Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency

PACE is a structure to build a communications plan.  The key to a good communications plan is that everyone has a basic idea of what will be attempted and when.  It makes no sense to be standing by a fax machine while someone is trying to call you on the radio.

Primary is the day-to-day communication system used.  This could be desk phone or cell phone for most businesses.  It can be the two-way radio system used in public safety.  Primary is the first way that you attempt to reach someone during routine times.

Alternate is the next-used system.  If you normally call a person at their desk and they are not there, the next step might be to call their cell, use a radio, page them, or call their home.  It could even be email, text messaging, whatever; there is no single right answer.  It will all depend on what systems your organization uses.  The right answer will be the consistent one that everyone knows.  This avoids the “Oh, I was listening for you on the radio; I didn’t think to check email” confusion.

Contingency is the system that you fall back to when the main methods of communicating are not working or not able to reach the person.  Normally, when this point is reached, it is obvious that something not routine is going on.  When including radios in your plan, make certain that predefined frequencies and modes have been agreed on and shared.  Saying generically that you’ll use amateur band or business band two-way radio is like telling someone that you’ll meet in Virginia and not be any more specific to the address.

Emergency is the system of last resort.  When nothing else is working, expect to pull this out.  There are two important things to note here.  Anything kept behind glass that says “break in case of emergency” will not work.  The equipment will not be tested and the users not trained.  Make certain that your emergency communications systems are regularly tested and used for highest impact during a disaster.  Second, sneaker-net is a valid communication system.  Setting up runners, shuttles or other ways to manually carry messages is fine.  Sometimes the best technology to use is none at all.

Interoperable Communications

Interoperable communications is not a technical problem; it is a political problem.  The technology exists today (and is widely used) to interconnect any number of systems to each other.  The political problem comes in when teams from different organizations are in direct contact in a way that bypasses the “normal” chain of command.  Regardless of how much interoperability exists, the Police Chief wants authority over all the police units and the Fire Chief wants authority over all the fire units.

Everyone wants interoperable communications but who do they really want to talk with?  Do they want the ability to do broadcast information that cross many channels, or is it for two-way exchanges between anyone?

Interoperability requires pre-disaster decisions to be made.  Who is authorized to activate or start using the interoperability channels?  Who has the authority to control radio traffic on the shared channel?  When units are engaged on the interoperability channels, do they have an expectation to monitor or check in on their normal primary channel?  The Incident Command Systems appears to resolve these problems but only within the scope of the incident itself.  These political pitfalls exist outside ICS.  Major incidents can be divides across a number of channels so interoperability isn’t just one channel but a whole suite depending on local plans.

Ten-digit interoperability: The phone system is a communication system, and totally interoperable.  You give me your phone number and I’ll give you mine.  It is simple and works everywhere in the US.  The basic telephone number is still the foundation of voice communication regardless if it is land-line, cellular, or satellite.

I like to tell people that I do INTRA-operable communication.  If I can get my organization to talk to itself, then most of my work is done.


Another tool in the tool box

The AIDF 2012 panel I was on generated the report: “Another tool in the toolbox.”  The report shares a series of outcomes.

  • Approach new technologies with cautious enthusiasm.
  • Partnerships involve giving too, not just taking.
  • If we agree to share, we can achieve more and save money.
  • Social media is a valuable source of information. Let’s take advantage of it.
  • Let’s innovate together.
  • Education trumps limitation.
  • Always be in preparedness mode.

The panel provided different view points because we were all at different points in technology with unique perspectives.  It was a pleasure to be on this panel and I look forward to next year at AIDF.

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

A Primer: Planning for a hurricane strike

At the bottom of this post is a link to a PowerPoint file that has the storm tracks to accompany this reading.

Hurricanes are a common occurrence in the Gulf and Atlantic basins.  Hurricane forecasts can provide a many day warning.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  Emergency managers face a challenge.  They need to meet the unforgiving expectations of the public they serve, and the news media that wants to sensationalize failures.  A local emergency manager who doesn’t take enough action ahead of a storm that hits the community will be tagged as incompetent; yet the same EM who mobilizes resources ahead of a storm that misses the community will be tagged as wasteful.

A good example of this is Hurricane Ike.  The forecasted track showed many possible scenarios five days out from the current day.  It started as Tropical Depression Nine on Monday, September 1, 2008.  The first few forecasts tracked the storm nearly due West toward Cuba and possibly into the Gulf of Mexico.

Wednesday, the forecast track started to swerve and it looked like it could track more North into Florida or even up the East Coast.  It is always best for a storm to make landfall late in the week when planning the mobilization of resources and public notifications.  However, this storm was different.  The timing was the worst in the week as the critical 3 days prior to landfall were over a weekend.  It is harder to contact government, non-governmental organizations, and private industry over the weekend, and even more difficult to get action taken.

Thursday evenings forecast provided some grim news.  Hurricane Ike appears that it will make landfall directly into Miami as a strong hurricane Tuesday evening.  The EM in Miami would need to start making arrangements on Friday expecting to work through the weekend.  The storm is so large that the outer rain bands would arrive Tuesday morning making travel more difficult.  Anything not in place by Monday would need to wait until after the storm passed.

Luckily for the EM in Miami, the storm’s turn to the North is shift farther West.  This means that Miami will get a glancing pass instead of a direct hit.  Imagine if the Miami EM started to mobilize expensive resources, and was calling for an evacuation of tourists.  There would be some unhappy politicians at the expenses, and businesses calling the politicians due to lost revenue.  Now the EM in Key West faces a similar problem.

Over the weekend, the track of Hurricane Ike keeps changing with a turn to the North shifting more and more West.  Alabama has a turn as the landfall location.  As does Mississippi and Louisiana.  The news on Monday morning reveals a straight shot to Galveston, TX with landfall the following weekend.  By Monday evening, the track shows landfall in Corpus Christi.

Consider that along the way, every EM of a coastal community has gone through a similar process of the Miami EM.  They had to weigh decisions on actions to take for what might occur four to five days away.  No EM wants to replay some of the catastrophes that occurred during prior seasons as the main character … or worse yet, the public scapegoat.

The track seems to be mostly consistent during Tuesday and Wednesday with a mid-Texas coast landfall on Saturday.  The storm will also speed up and move quickly across the Gulf.  It will cross the Western side of the Gulf in half the time of the Eastern side.  Note that the speed of the storm’s movement and the wind speed in the storm are two different things.  The wind speeds of the storm Tuesday evening were 80 mph, but the storm was only moving at 9 mph.  Just after landfall, the wind speed was 100 mph and the storm moved at 15 mph.

During this entire time, technology was used in many different ways.  The Weather Service was using computers to create forecast models, and then disseminate the information.  Both traditional media and social networking was pushing the information out to inform the public.  Emergency managers were using technology to plan for their response.

In this course, technology is used in the broad sense of the term.  It is any technology that is used to help make decisions, capture action, and connect.  It can be voice or data systems.  It can be stand-alone or networked.  It can be established or ad-hoc.  The key to successful integration of technology in disasters, emergencies and crisis is to think broadly and creatively on primary and alternate ways it can be used.

The needs around technology change from general hurricane planning, to the immediate planning in the days before the landfall, during the landfall when conditions are at the worst, and into the response and recover where the infrastructure may be damaged.

Hurricane Ike Track

White Rabbit teaching method

The White Rabbit from Alice in WonderlandThere are instructors that want to have the course lesson completely planned out so they know exactly what to say at what time.  I’m not really one of those instructors.  There are definite objectives that need to be reached during a class session but the path doesn’t need to be that prescribed.  I’d rather let the class be a discussion with the students and let them help drive the direction of some the class.  If there is students’ desire to slow down to really explore a topic in depth, then by all means the instructor needs to do it.  The instructor is there to teach the student.  Interest by the students needs to be taken hold by the instructor and promoted.  Ignoring students’ interest is a great way to spend two hours hearing your voice bounce off the back wall uninterrupted.

I describe my teaching style as following the White Rabbit.  Chase the White Rabbit to see where the path leads.  When I’m on my game, we can chase the White Rabbit yet still direct that character to get us to the royal Hearts in the end.  Is there any other way to explain how I can be teaching a lesson on GIS, but split off and explore sexagesimal numeric systems?

Here’s a rabbit hole that we’ll “randomly” fall into during my GIS lesson…

I’m sure that all this talk about degrees, minutes and seconds has made you wonder why there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an degree and 360 degrees in a circle.  We have the Babylonians to thank for that.  They used a base-60 numeric system (sexagesimal) that is used in both time measurements and angles.  You are familiar with a based-10 numeric system (denary), and maybe a base-16 (hexadecimal) if you program computers.  Latitude and longitude are minutes of an arc that originates in the middle of the Earth.

Sexagesimal numbers would name each place past the point in Latin: primus, seconde, tierce, etc.  Minutes are the first position.  Second position is 1/60th of a minute, or seconds as we call them.

While we are off topic, there are 24 hours in a day because the ancient Egyptians used sundials that showed 10 parts day, 10 parts night, 1 part morning twilight, and 1 part evening twilight.

Has anyone ever come up to me in a disaster and asked why our time is a base-60 numbering sequence?  Well, no.  But it is handy knowledge where you’re at a cocktail party, the conversation is in an uncomfortable silence, and you have nothing else to say.

Back to the class.

And here we are.  The students have another peice of trivia stuck in their head.  Some will never think of it again.  Some will keep it as curious trivia to help understand.  A few will think it is the best thing shared all night.


The possibility of 4G

It is important to take note of the possibility of 4G.  A T1 circuit is 1½ Mbit/s.  The minimum 4G standard of 100 Mbit/s is 66 times larger.  Take a look at the graphic posted on my blog at for a better understanding of this.  A cell phone running true 4G will have more bandwidth then an entire site serviced by a T1.  We are right on the verge of a major cellular service shift.  When setting up a site during a disaster, it is common to use one cellular data card (aka aircard) per computer.  With these faster speeds, we can use one cellular data card to be the head of the site’s network.

My team has already successfully setup a network in a disaster with one 4G aircard providing connectivity for 30 computers.  Granted it was rare that there were users on all 30 computers simultaneously surfing the net and streaming large files.  But, that’s the point during disasters — and really even day to day.  It isn’t about providing maximum bandwidth to each user all the time.  Instead, focus on load balancing to provide enough bandwidth to meet the combined average need ~90% of the time.  It is ok for the system to be a little slower during peak demand times.  Set the user’s expectations correctly, and your team will get through it.

A cellular connection could be used to back up a wireline circuit.  Advanced routers can handle multiple uplink connections with prioritization and failover settings.  This will provide redundancy.  It is better than two wireline circuits backing each other up when the backhoe cuts through the utility lines outside the building.  Redundancy is nice.  Diverse redundancy is better.

Your users in a disaster response will be on the computer only part of the time, with the rest of their time filled with other activities.  If a disaster responder travels to a location and spends the entire time behind a computer, then the question should be asked: could that person just stay in the office or at home to complete the same work?

If this interests you, take a look at this post.

Social media nuts and bolts

There are many different platforms to conduct social engagement.  A working list of these can be found on Wikipedia (  We’re just going to review a few of the major social media sites used in the US as an introduction.

Facebook: By far the leader with market share, Facebook is home to 800 million registered users near the end of 2011.  If Facebook were a country, it would be third most populated country behind China (1.3 billion) and India (1.2 billion), and ahead of the United States (312 million).  11% of the world’s population is on Facebook.  The site allows users to friend other users in the system.  Most people have set their security to only share their posts with friends.  Friending someone is a two-way process.  One person asks and the other accepts.  Without this mutual agreement, people will not be linked.

Twitter: Micro-blogging is the hallmark of Twitter.  Posts are limited to 140 characters.  It forces users to be brief and trim down excess to make a point.  All tweets are default to public.  Although users can make their tweets private and approve each follower, it isn’t very common.  The open nature of Twitter allows anyone to find and read tweets about a topic.  Topics are tagged and linked through the use of hashtags (#) before the word.  Emergency managers should be keeping tabs on the #SMEM conversation.  SMEM is short for Social Media Emergency Management.  Anything can be a hashtag, and the use of a hashtag is decided by the people who use it.  The other special character is the at sign (@).  This precedes a user name to identify it as such, and tags the user in the post.  This will make the post show up as a mention to the user tagged in to.  The @-sign become so popular that it was added in Facebook to tag other users.  The #-sign also became popular and is now used in Google+ to tag content as searchable.  Following is a one-way process.  For the most part, you can follow anyone in Twitter without needing their permission.

LinkedIn: From the start, LinkedIn has been billed as the professional networking site.  It focuses on building relationships between people and leveraging professional networks.  It lacks the entertainment aspect of the other social media sites, which adds to the site’s focus for business professionals.  An emergency manager would not look to reach the public through LinkedIn; instead this site is a good technique to collaborate with other disaster, crisis and risk professionals.

MySpace: This was a popular social media site until the perception took a nose dive.  The site’s lack of controls and investigations around pornography and other illegal activities darkened the perception of the site.  The site wasn’t dynamic in keeping up with user demand.  Other sites, like Facebook, were more rapidly adapting to meet user demand which led to users leaving MySpace.  Revenue and users have been steadily declining.  I would not start a social media campaign on MySpace unless there is a very specific audience you are seeking that hasn’t left yet.

Google+: This is Google’s recent response to social networking.  While the newest of the sites reviewed here, they have learned from the mistakes of the others.  The privacy policy and security settings built into Google+ from the start clearly resemble the best of both Twitter and Facebook.  I’ve explained Google+ to people this way: “Twitter and Facebook went on a date. Nine months later, Google+ appeared.”  It allows wide public sharing like Twitter, but also has features to allow limited posts to user-designated circles.  A circle is like a bucket of followers so sharing isn’t an all or nothing deal.  A user can share with college friends but not family, or with co-workers but not the public.  It is more representative of how a personal naturally separates their friendships in time and space.

YouTube: YouTube is in the list because sharing videos is part of social media.  It is user-generated content that is published for others.  The best use that I’ve seen for YouTube is in conjunction with another social media channel.  Post video content to YouTube then send out the link through other medium.  A handheld video camera can be used to capture short—almost raw—video from leaders during a disaster and shared.  While other times and topics deserve to have a high-quality and edited video package; it is acceptable to have a more raw and uncut feeling video during a disaster.  Take note that a video that feels raw and uncut may have actually been captured through multiple takes and did get edited before it was posted.  It is common to see broadcast news services show breaking news video from handheld phones until they have time to get their equipment to the scene.

Flickr: Flicker by itself isn’t really a social media site except for pure photo documentaries.  Like YouTube, it is best used in conjunction with other medium to tell a full story.  Creating a photo album for a specific event allows you to keep using the same link to the album while updating the content of the album with new imagery.  Using the same link will keep users going consistently to the same place.  If they click on a link in an older message, they’ll still be taken to current content.

Pam Dyer compiled a whole bunch of social media infographics at  Some have a high degree of bias or slightly out of date, but all-in-all it is a pretty decent review of the sites and public perception.


Here’s a few notes.  Watch this spot for information on showing the power and expectations of social media in disasters.

How much has internet usage changed in the last 10 years?

Who’s online?

What do people do everyday on the Internet? and

Why Americans use social media? (2011)


How big is social media?  This slide deck give a quick overview.  Is the most recent in a series of three.

What is the expectation of social media users when it comes to disasters?  The infographic is at (2010) Make certain you review slide 14.

A longer version with more details is at


Other notes:

How many people and households have cell phones?

What age ranges own what tech? and





Explaining Bandwidth

It is not uncommon for someone to look at me sideways like I’m talking geek.  This commonly occurs when I’m trying to explain bandwidth to someone.  Even if they “hear” the numbers in mbps (megabytes per second), I know they still don’t get the relative jumps of each.  So I’ve created this graphic.

I’ve taken each of the common connective technologies and depicted the throughput as the area of a circle.  Now imaging that each of these technologies is a water (or beer) pipe.  They’ll all eventually fill your glass but how fast do you want that drink to be ready? Continue reading Explaining Bandwidth