A little more on usability

About two years ago, I did a blog regarding usability. This video adds to that including my thoughts on BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and the impact on disaster technology. Regardless of how the future rolls out, the advances in technology should not make things more complex for the users. In fact, the additional computing power needs to be used to make work easier for the users.

When the going gets tough, hams get going

Reprinted from Urgent Communcations at http://urgentcomm.com/disaster-response/when-going-gets-tough-hams-get-going

When the going gets tough, hams get going

Mar. 19, 2013
Merrill Douglas | Urgent Communications

A handheld radio, portable antennas, extra batteries and cables, a soldering iron, clean clothes, snack bars and a length of rope.

That’s some of what you’ll find in a “go-bag.” And if you’re one of the many amateur-radio operators who volunteer during local emergencies, you always keep a go-bag packed. When disaster strikes, you grab it and rush to a Red Cross shelter, an emergency operations center (EOC) or some other activity hub to do what you do best — get messages through, despite all sorts of obstacles.

They don’t often get a lot of publicity, but amateur-radio operators — or “hams” — play an important role in emergency response.

“They’re a prime example of a grassroots effort,” said Keith Robertory, manager of disaster response emergency communications at the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C. “They live where the disaster occurs, and they already have the equipment, the knowledge of the location and knowledge of how the disaster would impact that location. So they’re immediately there and can start doing work.”

Hams often swing into action well before a storm or other event causes havoc on the ground. During hurricane season in the Caribbean, for instance, hams in that region keep their eyes on the weather out their windows, said David Sumner, chief executive officer (CEO) of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) in Newington, Conn. They use their radios to call in observations to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

As the storm passes, it might knock out power and damage antennas, “so they rig another antenna, start up the generator, and they’re back in business,” Sumner said

When hurricanes, blizzards, ice storms, earthquakes, tornadoes or other forces of nature cause widespread damage, hams get to work wherever they’re needed. In some cases, they transmit messages to take the place of two-way radio or phone systems that have been rendered inoperable in the aftermath of a disaster.

For instance, as Superstorm Sandy overwhelmed parts of the northeastern U.S. last October, some hams assisted regional hospital systems that had lost the ability to communicate among their buildings, Robertory said.

“Somebody would go to them and say, ‘We need this message passed to this building,'” he said. “They would get on the radio, call the amateur-radio operator in that other building, and give them the message.” The second operator then carried the message to the recipient.

Amateur-radio operators also help individuals contact family members, help the Red Cross conduct damage assessments and help get shelters established, Robertory said. For instance, people in a shelter might want to register on the Red Cross’s “Safe and Well” system to let family and friends know that they’re okay, but the shelter might not have power or Internet access at the time.

“An amateur-radio operator can call an amateur-radio operator somewhere else who has Internet access and relay information to put into a missing-persons database,” Robertory said.

Even when other networks are operating, ham operators take some of the load off those communications systems when traffic gets heavy.

Quick response

In the aftermath of Sandy, volunteers with the Greater Bridgeport Amateur Radio Club in Connecticut handled messages for three evacuation centers housing about 800 local residents.

“They were ready to take calls and dispatch people,” said Dana Borgman, press information officer for Region 2 of Connecticut Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), a volunteer organization. “The messages could be about supplies, logistics — any kind of reports.”

Public-safety communications networks in Bridgeport were operating at the time, Borgman said. Ham radios supplemented those channels. But, if the phone system in a shelter stopped working, hams could step into the void.

“If someone in a shelter needed to make a request, they could call someone at a different point, such as the EOC,” Borgman said. “They’d establish communication and say, ‘I have a request from the shelter manager. We need 200 cots and more fresh water.'” An operator at the other end would relay the request to the appropriate person.

Members of ARRL’s New York City-Long Island section provided similar aid after Sandy. At the time, Jim Mezey — now manager of that section — held the emergency coordinator’s post. Because he lives in Nassau County on Long Island, he focused most of his attention there.

“I did a lot of traveling,” he said. “I was without power for a while, so I used my mobile station to do most of my work. I also moved to the county EOC and worked with the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services (RACES)” — another volunteer group. For the most part, however, section members provided services to the Red Cross.

Finding enough manpower during the emergency became a bit tricky, because many of the radio volunteers from Long Island live on the hard-hit South Shore, Mezey said.

“They had their own problems with floods and losing power,” he said. “Their batteries lasted only so long, and that was it. No gasoline, no way to get around.”

Of course, for volunteers whose homes were flooded, taking care of their own families took top priority, he said.

Amateur clubs can swing into action quickly because they maintain ongoing partnerships with myriad emergency-response organizations. The ARRL has developed memoranda of understanding with 13 national organizations, such as the American Red Cross, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the Salvation Army and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Many operators also take advantage of training opportunities.

“A lot of the amateur-radio operators are now becoming CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) members,” said Borgman. “Also, we encourage our members to take all of the ICS (Incident Command System) training.”

ICS training teaches operators about the structure of incident command and how to use standard terminology, rather than terms specific to police, firefighters, radio operators or other specialists.

Beyond delivering messages, hams offer a lot of miscellaneous technical assistance, some of which is quite ingenious, Robertory said.

“They like to ‘MacGyver’ things,” he said. “You’ll hear a lot of amateur-radio people say, ‘Give me a car battery, an antenna and a radio and I can communicate from anywhere.'”

In times of disaster, hams tend to be extremely flexible, Robertory said.

“In the morning, they’ll set up an antenna and start communicating,” he said. “They’ll set up a satellite dish for us, and then they’ll set up a computer. They’ll troubleshoot a printer, and then they’ll teach someone how to use the fax machine.”

Clearly, when the going gets tough, it’s great to have someone on hand with a go-bag, a radio — and the attitude of a ham.

Cyber-security and disasters

More and more systems are being connected to share information, and IP networks provide a very cost-effective solution.  One physical network can be used to connect many different devices.  The water company can use a computer interface to control the water pumps and valves at treatment plants and throughout the distribution system.  The natural gas and electric providers can do the same.  Hospitals connect medical devices throughout the facility to central monitoring stations.  A few people in one room can watch all the ICU patients.  Fire departments, law enforcement and EMS can use a wireless network to communication, dispatch units, provide navigation, and track vehicle telematics to manage maintenance cycles.

All networks do not need to lead to the internet, however this is rare and needs to be specifically designed into the system when it is being designed.  Having a physically separate system does provide the best security if all the data is being kept internal to that network.  Remember that internal-only networks are still subject to security issues from internal threats.

Any network or device that does have an internet connection is subject to external attacks through that connection.  A malicious hacker can break into the water treatment system and change the valves to contaminate drinking water.  They could open all the gates on a dam flooding downstream communities.  They could reroute electrical paths to overload circuits or such down other areas.  They could change the programming so dispatchers are sending the farthest unit instead of the nearest, or create false dispatch instructions.

Cyber attacks can disable systems but they can also create real-world disasters.  First responders are trained to consider secondary-devices during intentionally started emergencies.  What if that secondary-device is a cyber attack, or a cyber attack precedes a real event?  During the September 2001 attacks in New York City, a secondary effect of the plane hitting the tower was the crippling of the first responder’s radio system.  Imagine if a cyber attack was coordinate with the plane’s impact.  The attackers could turn all traffic lights to green which could cause traffic accidents at nearly all intersection.  This would snarl traffic and prevent the first responders from getting to the towers.

A side step on the use of the term hacker.  A hacker is anyone that hacks together a technical or electronics solution in an uncommon way.  I explain it as “MacGyver’ing” a solution.  There is no positive or negative connotation in the term used that way.  Hacker also describes a person that breaks into computer systems by bypassing security.  A more accurate description is calling them a cracker, like a safe cracker.  This type of hacker is divided into criminals (black hats) and ethical hackers (white hats).  Ethical hackers are people who test computer security by attempting to break into systems.

By now, you’re probably aware of the Anonymous hacker group.  They have been collectively getting more organized and increasing in actions that drive toward internet freedom since 2008.  Often they’re called “hacktivists” meaning they hack to protest.  There are many more malicious hackers out there with different agendas: status, economic, political, religious … any reason people might disagree could be a reason for a hacker.

Somewhere on the internet is a team of highly trained cyber ninjas that are constantly probing devices for openings.  They use a combination of attack forms including social engineering (phishing) attacks.  Automated tools probe IP addresses in a methodically efficient manner.  The brute force method is used to test common passwords on accounts across many logins.  Worms and Trojans are sent out to gather information and get behind defenses.  Any found weaknesses will be exploited.

Pew Internet reports that 79% of adults have access to the internet and two-thirds of American adults have broadband internet in their home.  The lower cost of computers and internet access has dramatically increase the number of Americans online.  The stand-alone computer connected to the internet has forced the home user to have the role of the system administrator, software analyst, hardware engineer, and information security specialist.  The must be prepared to stop the dynamic onslaught of cyber ninjas, yet are only armed with the tools pre-loaded on the computer or off-the-shelf security software.

Organizations are in a better and worse position.  The enterprise network can afford full-time professionals to ensure the software is updated, the security measures meet the emerging threats, and professional resources to share information with peers.  Enterprise networks are also a larger target; especially to increase the online reputation of a hacker.

On Disasters

During a disaster, there will be many hastily formed networks.  The nature of rushed work increases the number of errors and loopholes in technical systems.

During the Haiti Earthquake response, malware and viruses were common across the shared NGO networks.  The lack of security software on all of the laptops created major problems.  Some organizations purchased laptops and brought them on-scene without any preloaded security software.  Other organizations hadn’t used their response computers in over a year, so no recent security patches to the operating systems or updates to the anti-virus software was done.  USB sticks move data from computer to computer, bypassing any network-level protections.  The spread of malware and viruses across the networked caused problems and delays.

There are a number of key factors when designing a technology system that will be used in response that differ from traditional IT installations.  One of the most important considerations is a way for the system to be installed in a consistent manner by people with minimal technical skills.  Pre-configuration will ensure that the equipment is used efficiently and in the most secure manner.


Additional Resources

Understanding networking

As a manager, it is not your responsibility to know how to configure a router and make things work in the network.   The best way that you should consider networking is the “black box theory”.  You really don’t care how the individual parts work.  You need to know what they are capable of.  Believe it or not, networking is really simple.

At the simplest form, a network is a few computers that are connected by a wire to a network device that shares the information to each computer.   A network is similar to a big post office that is sharing information packets electronically.  The computers each have a unique name that helps the network devices know what information goes to what computer.

The internet is an IP-based network.  IP stands for Internet Protocol.  Easy, huh?  The Transmission Control Protocol is the way that the computers break up large data chunks to send across the internet.  Stick the two together and you’ll get the commonly referred to TCP/IP.  There are other forms of message handling—such as User Datagram Protocol (UDP)—to move information across the internet.  You don’t need to know how these work or move information.  Just know that IP is the backbone of the internet.

Any data that you can turn into an IP packet can travel over an IP network; that data can also travel local networks and the internet.  When a phone converts voice to an IP packet, it is called a Voice over IP phone (VoIP) meaning that it can send your phone call over the same network as email, web browsing, and everything else.

Blah-blah over IP is nothing fancy.  That means that someone has designed a network device (or interface) that translates information from a source to an IP-packet, and back.  You’ll hear about Radio-over-IP, Video-over-IP, Computer-over-IP, and just about everything else.

Data standards are really important in this area.  When each vendor comes up with their own way of doing ____-over-IP, then it is likely that vendors will not be compatible unless they use a standard.  While there are organizations that state standards, a standards true usefulness is proven by if and how people use it.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has a series of standards for videoconferencing, including ITU H.320 and H.264.  When Cisco Telepresence was released, it was designed to bring a meeting room presence to teleconferencing.  Part of the design was full size displays that blended both conference rooms.  It was not compatible with any other video conferencing systems.  The Cisco sales rep explained to me that their product would look poor if it was used with lower quality non-telepresence systems, so the decision was made to be a non-standard data packet.  The problem with this is that it would require companies to invest in two separate video conferencing systems.  More recent advances have allowed some mixed use of video conferencing systems.

Now that we’ve talked a bit about what can go across the network, let us turn back to the network itself.

There are many different formats of networks.  A quick internet search on “network topology” will show the different forms.  Each has an advantage and a disadvantage.  For this course, the focus will be on a tree topology.  An internet connection enters a site through one point.  Switches and routers are used to split that internet connection to all the individual computers.

A demarc (short for demarcation) point is where a utility enters a building.  It is also the point that separates ownership between the utility company and the building owner.  The electrical demarc in a residential home is commonly the electric meter.  The power company will handle everything up to and including the meter.  The home owner handles everything from the meter to the power outlets.

A telephone demarc is located at the telephone network interface.  The network demarc is located at the network interface device (aka smartjack).  These can be located anywhere in a building, but I’ve found that most wireline utilities come in together.  These can be copper wire, fiber optic or some other type of cable.

The demarc is the head of the network for that site.  In a tree topology, this is where the site’s primary router would be located.  A router is a network device that moves data packets between two different networks.  Here, the router is directing the packets, only passing those that need to travel on the other network.  It is ideal for separating two networks to reduce congestion by keeping local data within the local network.  A primary router, sometimes called a site’s core router, is the one that controls the other routers and is mission-critical for the site to be connected.

Routers are the major component that give a network flexibility.  Professional (non-consumer) grade routers allow for the installation of modules, both physical and logical.  These modules connect the router to different devices.  These modules commonly allow a router to connect to a wireline (T1, T3, etc) circuit, a wireless (wifi, cell) circuit, or a different cabling (twisted pair, coax).  These modules can also be used to connect a router to a phone system, radio system, video system and so on.

Other network devices used to spread network segments out from the router include switches and hubs.  Switches can have different interfaces and be used to connect different network types.  This is handy in older buildings where you may need to use an existing style network and will overlay it with a different type of cabling or connections.  Hubs are almost non-intelligent splitters that just provide more ports.

The Warriors of the Net video provides an entertaining explanation of the different components.  Again, from a manager’s perspective, you do not need to get very technical with the network components.

My bag of holding

From time to time, I pull something out of my bag and folks wonder just what I carry in it.  So here is the contents of my bag that I carry with me nearly everywhere.  It is my home, commute, work, disaster and COOP bag.

Picture of the contents in my every day laptop bag.

I start with a Timbuk2 messenger bag.  Unlike most messenger bags that are horizontal (wider than tall), this bag is vertical (taller than wide).  It is TSA friendly too with a separate laptop compartment.  I looked at their site and it might not be made anymore.

Top left of the table is a USB clip extender.  This handy doodad clips the USB aircard to the top of the monitor for better signal reception.

Two power supplies for the laptop.  The left one is 12v DC and the right one is 110v 90w.

The silver thing in the middle of the top row is Imodium.  Because when it is needed, it is needed right away.

Two standard micro-USB chargers.  All my USB chargeable devices are standardized on the micro USB.

Near the standard charges are two USB blocks.  The bullet shaped one is for 12v to USB.  The square one is 110v to USB.

The far right of the table is a couple micro USB cables, and one mini USB cable.

Next row start at the business cards.  Note the high quality business card holder.

Pens, assorted.  One of those is really a pencil.

Nail clippers.  Also cuts cable ties, hanging threads, and anything else that needs a nip.

USB aircard.  This one happens to be a 4G Verizon card.

Surge protector.  Three 110v outlets and two USB outlets.  Handy when the hotel or airport only has space for one plug.  The short extension cord goes with this so the other wall outlet isn’t blocked.

Bluetooth mouse.  There is only so much of a touch pad that one can tolerate.  Honestly though, my wife uses that more then I do.

USB sticks.  The black one is an IronKey for sensitive data.  The other two are for file movement only.  I don’t store data on unprotected USB sticks.  Risk of theft/loss is too great.  IronKey moved all the secure USB products to Imation.

Finally, the bottom left of the picture: headsets.  Two are simple listen only.  One has a microphone for phone calls.  They break or get lost so often, that I keep stashing more in the bag.

Not shown:



Extra laptop battery

Note pad … I mean paper, not electrified or anything.



If radio waves were visible light

There is a lot more in common between radios and cell phones then most people expect.  It can be hard to see similarities when the user interfaces are designed so differently.  Fundamentally, they both have a power source that drives the device to generate a signal across an antenna.  In turn, the antenna generates radio waves that run through the atmosphere until they hit another antenna attached to a receiver.

If you could see radio waves, they’d appear as if we had hundreds of lights turned on all around us.  We’d see the waves coming off our cell phones, wifi-enabled devices, blue-tooth devices, wireless phones, cellular-enabled tablets and hot spots.  Also visible is the radio waves from your neighbors’ equipment coming right through your walls as if the walls weren’t even there.  The wireless baby monitor would probably appear just as annoying as the tantruming child.  Larger sources of radio waves would emanate from cell towers.  Way off in the distance, AM and FM towers would glow like a sun.  Even the fast food drive through isn’t immune due to the wireless headsets and speakers.  Look to the sky and you’ll see the satellites sending their signal to the earth.  Right above the equator, the concentration of transmitting satellites would resemble the Milky Way.    Add in all the natural sources and unintended sources from poorly designed electrical systems to really complete the image.  No lie.  Radio waves are everywhere.

In the US, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration will set the broad allocation of the spectrum and how it can be used.  They publish the US Frequency Allocations: The Radio Spectrum chart.  It is very finely divided down, yet you’ll still see major sections allocated to broadcasting.  Spectrum is a finite resource.  We cannot create any more and all of it is allocated to something.  That is why spectrum management is so important.  Broadcasting has had to make better and more efficient use of the spectrum to keep it.  Hence the evolution of HD radio; which by the way is hybrid digital not high definition.  It also led to the use of Digital TV to include more information and resolution in the TV station’s broadcast.

At the bottom of this chart is the full spectrum.  Near the left end is the audible wave lengths; the middle contains a very narrow band of the visible spectrum; and the far right is cosmic rays.  The continuous range of frequencies (and then some) is called “DC to daylight”.  DC refers to direct current or 0 Hertz.  Daylight refers to the band of visible light, starting about 405 THz.  Thz is Terahertz or 1012 Hertz.  If you’re used to the metric system, Tera comes after Giga.  Looking for a radio that does “DC to daylight” isn’t a literal radio.  It is referring to a radio that will continuously cover all possible radio bands.  Keep in mind that the more bands (frequency ranges) a radio will cover; the less impressively it can master a single band.  Think of it this way: a Swiss army knife provides a lot of tools which are better than nothing, but far less handy then having the actual tool needed.


Additional reading

National Telecommications and Information Administration. (2003). U.S. Frequency Allocation Chart.  Retrieved from http://www.ntia.doc.gov/osmhome/allochrt.html



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

An interview I did originally posted at http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9219561/Peer_to_peer_wireless_network_could_help_in_disasters,
and http://www.cio.com/article/688745/Peer_to_Peer_Wireless_Network_Could_Help_in_Disasters

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

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

The final 802.11n standard: Good for disaster response

The wifi a b d g logoThe final approval of the wireless 802.11n standard revisits the potential to significantly change the use of wireless networking during disasters.  Previous wireless standards always fell significantly behind wired in data throughput to point where most users would recognize the difference and prefer a wired connection.  802.11n’s theoretical maximum throughput is 600 Megabits per second (Mbit/sec) but it is realistic to expect in the mid-100’s.  This places wireless nicely comparable to 100BASE-TX wired Ethernet which runs at 100 Mbit/sec. 

Continue reading The final 802.11n standard: Good for disaster response